Tales From L4

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2019.

We were now in what some call the Business End of the season. The remaining games would quickly sort us out. Could we cling on to a top four position in the league? Could we reach yet another semi-final and another final? Would we, via either route, play Champions League football in 2019/2020? Or would we slump to a meek finish and “only” qualify for another Europa League campaign?

We would soon find out.

I suspect that I am not the only one who was dreading the trip to Anfield, for more than one reason. Liverpool had only lost once in the league all season and were vying for top spot with Manchester City. After the game in 2014 – how can it be almost five years ago? – they were after revenge. All week I kept saying to myself “I’d take a 0-0” draw. A goal-less draw? Too right. One more point for us, and two dropped points for them. And advantage City in the race for the title.

In the build-up to the weekend, a few things really focussed my mind on the game on Merseyside. On Thursday, I spotted that there was going to be a charity match in Dublin the following evening in order to raise funds for Sean Cox, the Liverpool supporter who was so badly injured by some Roma ultras outside Anfield last season. As I mentioned at the time, this awful incident hit home because Sean is the brother-in-law of a friend through work who I have known for sixteen years. My friend’s husband Marty was with Sean on that fateful evening in April of last season, and my friend – a client of ours –  has been giving me updates over the past twelve months of Sean’s – very slow – progress. It was a devastating incident for the whole family. But I have been pleased to hear of steady improvements in recent months. A game involving Liverpool legends and an Irish legends team at the Aviva Stadium was planned. I soon realised why my friend had an “out of office” on her email on Friday. In the evening, I sent her a little text to say that I hope that Sean enjoyed the upcoming game.

By that stage, on the Friday evening, work was behind me for the week and I was on my way to Basingstoke to see China Crisis, sons of Liverpool, once again. But football was still tugging away at my coat tails. As I stopped mid-route for a bite to eat, I checked my phone and saw that Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool captain, had passed away.

Liverpool was certainly starting to dominate the weekend.

After the China Crisis concert, I had a quick chat with Eddie Lundon, one of the band’s original two members, who I have got to know over the past few years through a mutual friend. Ed is a Liverpool season ticket holder and I wondered if he had heard about Tommy Smith. I felt awkward asking about him, in case he had not heard the news. But sad news travels fast and he had indeed heard about Tommy Smith. We chatted briefly and quickly about the Liverpool vs. Chelsea game. On the Sunday, he would be driving back from a gig on the Isle of Wight, thus missing the match. I could tell that he was displeased. He even mentioned it during the gig.

If I had more time after the concert, I would have liked to have shared a story about Tommy Smith with Ed.

A few years ago, Parky and I visited a few local pubs where Ron Harris was guest of honour, on two occasions alongside Peter Bonetti, Bobby Tambling and Charlie Cooke. They were superb evenings. A favourite yarn, told slowly and purposefully by Chopper, involved Tommy Smith. Ever since Emlyn Hughes broke Peter Osgood’s leg in 1966 in a game against Blackpool, the soon-to-be Liverpool defender was never flavour of the month at Chelsea. Apparently, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes never saw eye-to-eye either, even when they were playing alongside each other in the Liverpool team of Bill Shankly in the early ‘seventies. A few years later in a game at Anfield involving Liverpool and Chelsea, Ron Harris “arrived late” as he crunched into Emlyn Hughes and wiped him out completely. While Hughes was writhing around on the floor in agony, and as his Liverpool team mates gathered around offering words of support, Tommy Smith sidled over to our Chopper and whispered these words:

“I’m beginning to like you, Mister Harris.”

He was a hard man, Tommy Smith, and this was praise indeed for our own enforcer.

RIP.

On the Saturday, I had a choice to make. My local team, Frome Town, on a run of three straight defeats, were at home to Hartley Wintney but I simply could not be arsed. I just could not stomach yet another insipid performance, yet another defeat and the inevitable relegation from the division. Even though the game was only four miles away, I stayed at home and cracked on with a few jobs. I have probably watched Frome more this season than any other year, but enough was enough.

Frome lost 1-0.

After eight successive seasons at “Level Seven” in the English football pyramid, relegation was a certainty. I was momentarily sad, but the comparison with Frome and Chelsea was brought into sharp focus. On the following day, I’d be travelling up to Liverpool, a good five-hour trip, and cheering on the boys. There was no way that I would not attend.

I had to be there.

By 9am on Sunday, the Chelsea 3 were on our way to Liverpool 4.

There was a lot of chit-chat between PD, Parky and little old me as I drove up past Bath and onto the M4 and then the M5. The potential trips to Lisbon, Frankfurt and Baku dominated everything. After a while, the jibber-jabber died down a little and I concentrated on getting us safely up to Liverpool. The weather outside was cold, the skies grey. We stopped at Strensham and also Sandbach. There were Liverpool replica kits everywhere. By about 1.30pm, I had reached a car-park right outside Goodison Park at the northern end of Stanley Park. We paid £15 and we were safe. The attendant positioned us right near the gates for a quick getaway.

“Are youse gonna be leaving right on the whistle?”

“Depends if we’re getting thumped.”

“Might be at half-time.”

Gallows humour.

It was odd being so close to Goodison Park on a non-match day. Just like Liverpool Football Club on the main approach to Anfield, up the long steady hill of Utting Avenue, Everton Football Club have decorated every available lamp post with a pennant. Without the need to rush, I had time to notice that there are Archibald Leitch motifs on the royal blue Everton ones and I approved. We had decided to drink at the Thomas Frost pub on Walton Road, a large and charmless Wetherspoons. It was a relatively safe haven, though. We quickly spotted a table of Chelsea fans – no colours, familiar faces, usual suspects – and we joined them. We were joined by a few other Chelsea supporters. Very soon the pub was packed.

90% Liverpool.

10% Chelsea.

But it was fine. There were random outbreaks of Chelsea sings, but none of the home fans were overly intimidating. They had other things on their minds. The Manchester City game was on the TV, and most of the Scousers were subdued. I bumped into Steve, who runs the Connecticut Blues in the US, and it was the first time that I have seen him for quite a few years. He had won a trip over to England – flying into Manchester, two nights in Liverpool, match tickets – along with four others. It was good to see him again.

Welsh Kev arrived on the scene, like me a dedicated driver for the day. While I was existing on “Cokes”, Kev was making use of free coffee-refills. His route up to Liverpool had mirrored ours.

“Loads of Liverpool replica shirts at the services.”

“Tell me about it” I replied.

They love a replica shirt, the Micky Mousers.

At about 3.30pm, we decided to catch a cab from outside the pub up to Anfield, thus saving valuable time. Both Everton’s and Liverpool’s two grounds are covered by the L4 postcode.

L4 Blue to L4 Red.

It sounded like a chess move. And it was all over in a few minutes. The cabbie – another “red” after the two “reds” we used on the day of the Everton match a month earlier – dropped us off on Walton Breck Road. We were now right in the very heart of all things red. I took a photograph of PD and Parky with the gleaming new main stand in the background before they shot off for one last beer in the away end. I took a walking tour around Anfield for the first time since the stadium had its mammoth new addition. I slowly walked past “The Twelfth Man” pub and then approached “The Albert“ pub right outside The Kop. My mind whirled back to last April. This was exactly the spot where Sean Cox was attacked.

I continued walking. The statue of Bill Shankly, fists clenched.

I honestly didn’t mind Liverpool in those days.

As I slowly moved from one vantage point to another, I had presumed that Manchester City had won. There was a noticeably subdued air underneath the towering stands. On some of the signage, there was the usual hyperbole associated with modern football, and with Liverpool Football Club especially. On a sign above an entrance to The Kop, the word “Songs” was crossed out. The word “Anthem” was highlighted instead. Then the words “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Then the words “Not a song. It’s who we are.”

Then the hook line “We are Liverpool. This means more.”

Well, that just didn’t scan.

File under “trying too hard.”

The new stand goes back forever. I can only imagine the amount of corporate hospitality areas entombed within it. The days of the “half-time gate” on The Kop are consigned to history. I remembered that one of the cabbies from last month mentioned to us that his season ticket mentions the word “client number” rather than “supporter number.”

I hate modern football, part 847.

However, I like the way that, instead of acres of steel cladding, much of the façade uses standard red brick, so typical of the local area’s tight terraced streets. I didn’t get a chance to spot the re-positioned Hillsborough Memorial, but I climbed the stairs – presumably a nod towards the terraces of the old Kop – and took a few photos. I walked past the line at the away turnstiles but noted one Liverpool fan shout out –

“You fucking rent boys.”

I – pardon the pun – walked on.

I met up with Eddie’s son Daniel – and my friend Kim – outside the Kenny Dalglish Stand, formerly the Centenary Stand, formerly the Kemlyn Road Stand, God I am showing my age. There was only time for a quick “hello goodbye” before we needed to head off into our respective areas. Eddie and his son have season tickets on the half-way line – a great “speck” in the local lingo –  in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand. The Shankly Gates – forged in my home town of Frome – have been repositioned outside this stand, having moved from their original position alongside the original Hillsborough Memorial

On the façade of this stand, there was more hyperbole.

The word “badge” was crossed out and the word “honour” was used instead.

Then “for others it’s an emblem. For us, it’s an honour.”

Righty-o.

Time was moving on. I lined up at the away turnstiles. I bumped into some familiar faces. Lads from my local area had tried, like Steve from Connecticut, to get into the usual “Arkles” but for the first time ever it was “home fans only.” I suspect that on this day of all days, on the Hillsborough weekend, the landlord had decided to play it safe. After a quick bag check, I was in. I was tempted to save the green “bag searched” tag for the few Liverpool fans that I know.

“Here’s a souvenir from Anfield, since you fuckers never go these days.”

This would be my twenty-fourth trip with Chelsea in all competitions.

Our record is not great in this cross-section of matches, but better – much better – than it used to be.

Won 5

Drew 6

Lost 12

Our last loss at Anfield was the 4-1 defeat just after the 2012 FA Cup Final win against the same team when nobody could really be bothered. We had loads of empty seats at Anfield that night, a black mark in recent years.

The team?

I almost expected a false nine. It was a show of reticence from Sarri.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilcueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Hazard – Willian

A huge game for our Ruben and our Callum. But a huge game for all of us. I really do not know what Gonzalo Higuain made of Maurizio Sarri’s starting eleven. Higuain was Sarri’s boy. He worked with him at Napoli. I am not sure if the phrase “cherry-picked” is correct, but Sarri chose him above all other strikers in January. And he was on the bench.

The stadium was packed to the rafters. Just before the teams came onto the pitch, the ridiculously deep-voiced Anfield announcer – who has been going for years and years – spoke of Tommy Smith and most Chelsea supporters joined in with a minute of applause.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” boomed and Chelsea floated the yellow “Chelsea Here. Chelsea There” away flag. Then, the stadium settled and the announcer spoke of Hillsborough.

The teams stood in the centre circle.

Mosaics filled the Dalglish Lower Tier and the entirety of The Kop.

“30 Years – 96.”

Not a word was spoken in that respectful minute by anyone.

For the youngest, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – Steven Gerard’s cousin – aged just ten, to the oldest, Gerard Baron, aged sixty-seven.

For the Hicks sisters.

For Kevin Williams, aged just fifteen, whose mother Anne was such a dominant force in the battle for justice.

For Tony Bland, the last to die, in 1993

For the 96 – RIP.

I have written about the tragedy of Hillsborough before. When I see footage of that day, there are soon tears.

Just one thing to add. Of the ninety-six deaths, only three were over fifty years of age. A staggering seventy-eight were less than thirty years old. Not only does this represent a staggering loss of humanity, of young lives not being able to blossom, but it also marks a snapshot in time, only thirty years ago, when the age of match-going supporters was noticeably younger than today. The average age of those who were killed was around twenty-five. In those days, going to football was a young man’s game. And that last comment was not meant to be sexist. Many more men went to football in those days. Of the ninety-six fatalities, eighty-nine were male.

Football has indeed changed in so many ways since April 15 1989.

The game began. If the key phrase before the match was “I’d take a 0-0 now” then another was undoubtedly “let’s not concede an early goal.”

As with every visit to Anfield, I became obsessed with the discrete clock tucked into the side of the Dalglish Stand. Like at Old Trafford, there are no large TV screens at Anfield, for which I am quite grateful. For all of the off-the-field corporate activity spinning out of control, it is reassuring to see that, at least during the game, it is all about the action on the pitch at these two great stadia in the north-west of England. There are no distractions. Our gaze is centered on the twenty-two players. I like that.

The home team dominated the early possession and a volley from Mo Salah bounced against the turf before nestling in Kepa’s arms. Dave seemed to be a little off the pace at the start but soon improved. After a while we began to build a few attacks. Eden Hazard was the busiest of our forwards, but he tended to plough a lone furrow upfront, often prone to drifting into his favoured inside left channel but with virtually no support. A lone cross from our Callum on the right did not reach anyone. A Hazard shot was easily saved by Alisson at his bear post. The heal of David Luiz thankfully deflected a Jordan Henderson effort wide. We were so close to the action. I watched the faces of the Chelsea defenders at corners. I shared their obvious anxieties.

Toni Rudiger went down and we feared the worst. He went off, then came back on immediately.

Our best chance of the first-half fell to Willian, raiding centrally. He kept moving the ball to his right, and I was begging for a drilled low shot across Alisson into the bottom left, but he kept moving the ball on. His shot spun well clear of the right-hand post. We were then exposed as a Salah sprint down our left was followed by a ball into Sadio Mane’s path, but his shot narrowly whizzed past the post.

Thirty minutes had passed and we were keeping them at bay. Pre-match, there were horrible thoughts of another Manchester City style bombardment. With five minutes of the first-half remaining, Rudi went down again. This time he didn’t move. Sadly, this time there was no miraculous recovery. He was replaced by Andreas Christensen (who some Chelsea fans still think played at Anfield in 2014. It was Tomas Kalas) and he looked a little nervy in the last five minutes of the first-half.

Over in the lower tier of the Dalglish Stand, I couldn’t help but notice something that I always pick up on during most visits to Anfield. In the area closest to the Anfield Road Stand – the one that we were sharing with some home fans – there seemed to be more red on show. My take on this is that in the more central areas of the lower tier, there are more season ticket holders. In the flanks of that stand, there are more “day trippers” (as the Liverpool hardcore calls them) and hence more people prone to visit the club shop and buy scarves, shirts, jackets and hats. I’d imagine that season ticket holders at most clubs tend not to go too overboard with club colours. Of all the stadia in England, I have always thought that this is more noticeable at Anfield than at any other ground.

I was stood with Parky, Gal and Alan. The Chelsea support had been sporadic throughout the first-half. I think we were all too nervous. The home support was certainly nervous. Fifty thousand of them honestly failed to get much of an atmosphere going at all.

There were nerves everywhere.

Right before the break, Kepa stretched late and made a super reflex save, but an offside flag had already been raised. In truth, our ‘keeper had not been as busy as I had perhaps predicted.

We had made it to half-time.

0-0.

“And breathe.”

The general consensus was that we had played reasonably well during the first period. Both Ruben and Callum had shown flashes, but were quiet. Kante and Hazard – no surprises really – had been our standout performers. Jorginho had largely been a bystander with only occasional offensive prods to team mates. The days of us Chelsea supporters singing a song in praise of him, and the manager, are long gone. At the break, I bumped into a Chelsea fan that I know through Facebook, a young lad called Bank, from Thailand, who was at his very first Chelsea away game. He had watched the Chelsea vs. West Ham United game last week and on Saturday was lucky enough to see a Mason Mount hat-trick as Derby County beat Bolton Wanderers 4-0. After the game, he waited to chat with Frank Lampard, and he had a truly wonderful time.

The second-half began. And still Anfield was quiet, so quiet.

The first five minutes passed.

“Let’s get to the hour.”

A minute later, the ball was worked inside our box to Henderson who clipped over a tantalising ball into our six-yard box. Mane rose with no Chelsea defender in sight, let alone touching distance, and his header easily found the net. If Rudiger had been on the pitch, would he have had such am unhindered leap? Perhaps not. He reeled away towards the corner, beneath that damn clock, and Anfield erupted. The noise roared around the stadium now.

One song kept going and going.

“We’ve conquered all of Europe.

We’re never gonna stop.

From Paris down to Athens.

We’ve won the fucking lot.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly.

The fields of Anfield Road.

We are loyal supporters.

And we come from Liverpool.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.

Allez, allez, allez.”

It didn’t reach 2005 levels. But take it from me, it was loud.

It was to get worse. Liverpool hit a purple patch. A cross-field ball from Virgil Van Dijk sent over a cross-field ball to Salah, who cut in past Emerson and unleashed an impeccable laser into the top corner of Kepa’s goal. Anfield erupted again.

Bollocks.

Two goals had been conceded in the first eight minutes of the second-half. What the bloody hell does the fag muncher say to the players at half-time? I’d really like to know.

Gonzalo Higuain replaced our Callum.

Bizarrely, we then hit our best period of the entire game. A fantastic ball from Emerson was beautifully dolloped into the path of Hazard who took one touch and shaped to shoot. I’d say that every Chelsea supporter was poised to leap and scream. A goal looked the only option. Alas, the shot smacked against the base of the right hand post. We were crestfallen. Soon after, Willian clipped in an equally impressive ball into the danger area towards Hazard, but Alisson was able to save.

We then fell away again.

Ross Barkley replaced our Ruben.

Our attacking game petered out, and we rarely threatened the Liverpool goal again despite many Hazard dribbles – he takes a good photo, eh? – and the occasional shot from Higuain and Hazard.

It was not to be.

Liverpool deserved their win. They were more clinical. They were not at their best but they were, evidently, too good for us.

I have this horrible feeling that they might win it this season.

Fackinell.

On Thursday, the road to Baku continues with a home game against Slavia Prague.

I will see some of you there.

 

Tales From A Perfect Ten

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2019.

On the day before our game with West Ham United – the Sunday – I was getting stir crazy at home and so decided to head out on a short drive to try out a new pub and a new Sunday Roast. My route south took me on a road that always reminds me of several trips that I used to take with my father. I soon found myself heading towards the village, ten miles away, of Maiden Bradley. My father used to be a shopkeeper, of menswear, in the local town of Frome. He would work six days a week, but Thursday was always “half-day closing” (Thursdays were always a favourite day of the week for me because Dad would always be at home when I returned from school, unlike his appearance at 5.30pm or so on all other days). On some Thursdays, Dad would announce to me that he was off “on his rounds” and this inevitably meant that during the school holidays, right after lunch, I would accompany him as he visited one or two customers who could not get in to town as often as they would normally hope. One such customer was Mrs. Doel who lived in Maiden Bradley. My father was a very safe driver, and I suppose this really means that he was a slow driver. He was never ever caught speeding. He would potter around at forty miles per hour on most roads. I suspect that the desire to save money by not eating up fuel was a main factor. However, as a special treat on these visits to Maiden Bradley, and where the road is particularly long and straight, with excellent visibility, he would – as a treat for me – get the car up to the seemingly blistering speed of fifty miles per hour. After the slower speeds that I was used to, fifty miles per hour seemed supersonic.

“Do fifty, Dad” I would plead.

And off we would go. It was even more enjoyable when I had my own plastic steering wheel to stick on to the plastic dashboard of his green Vauxhall Viva. I’d grip it, stare out of the windscreen and watch the trees and hedgerows, and oncoming cars, fly past.

It was one of my favourite father and son moments from my early childhood.

Of course, over the following years, fifty miles per hour was reached with increasing regularity, if not by my father, then certainly by myself. I often reach fifty miles per hour in the country lanes around my village without even thinking about it.

The thrill has long gone.

And on Sunday, as I thought ahead to the match on the following evening, I realised that the thrill of playing West Ham United had long gone too.

It wasn’t the same in 1984/85 and 1985/86, seasons that marked the first two occasions of seeing our rivals from the East End of London for the very first time. In those days, the identity of football clubs seemed to be stronger; West Ham were a tightly-knit club, with a very local – and famously violent – support, and their whole identity was wrapped up within the structure of an East End football club, the tightness of Upton Park, those ridiculously small goal frames in front of the packed and occasionally surging terraces, local players, Billy Bonds and all, pseudo-gangsters in the ICF, the whole nine yards. These days, their team consists of mainly foreign players – like most – and they play in a vapid and bland “super” stadium. When did the thrill wear off? Not so sure. I still – always – get “up” for a Tottenham game. But not necessarily a West Ham one. The game on Monday 8 April 2019 would, after all, be my twenty-fifth Chelsea vs. West Ham game at Stamford Bridge and my thirty-ninth in total. After that many games, in which we have generally had the upper hand, the thrill has dwindled.

And then Everton beat Arsenal 1-0 at Goodison Park late on Sunday afternoon and my interest levels increased. I quickly did the maths. We all did. Believe it or not, if we were to beat West Ham the following day, we would end up – and God only knows how – in the heady heights of third place.

Game – most definitely – on.

This was turning into a typically bloody ridiculous season even by Chelsea’s standards. We had lost games – Tottenham in the League Cup – where we had come away in a very positive frame of mind and we had won games – Fulham at home, certainly Cardiff City away – where we felt as though we had lost.

It was turning into another emotional roller-coaster.

And then at work, on Monday, I had my personal roller-coaster too. I realised that a co-worker had not only booked the week off in which the Europa League semi-final first leg was to be played – potential trips to Lisbon or Frankfurt – but also the week of the bloody final too. My mood plummeted. We have a small team and I feared the worst.

Why the hell had I not booked the week of the final off in August or September?

It spoiled my pre-match if I am honest.

Talking of holidays, on the drive up to London with the usual suspects, Glenn and I reminisced about our trip to Australia last summer. We wondered how on earth it has taken Maurizio Sarri until April to start Callum Hudson-Odoi in a league game. Callum had laid on the cross for Pedro to score against Perth Glory back in July and seemed to be the talk of that rain-sodden town. His emergence into the first team ranks has been a slow process, eh?

There were drinks in the usual places with the usual faces. I told a few people of my “holiday problem” and although the saying is “a problem shared is a problem halved” I don’t think it helped. I just disliked myself twice as much for not booking the time off earlier. But it was a great pre-match. As often happens, Parky had the best line. On my way back from the gents, I managed to stumble a little as I headed up the stairs to re-join the lads.

Parky : ““That’ll be the biggest trip you’ll be going on over the next two months.”

We made our way to Stamford Bridge. On the cover of the match day programme was a photograph of Eden Hazard, a mixture of quiet confidence and a little coyness, his head bowed, not sure if he really wanted to be the focus of attention. It would turn out to be a prophetic choice of cover star.

The team?

I was generally in favour of the one that the manager picked. Glenn and I had wondered if he would prioritise the game in Prague on Thursday. It was difficult to tell. Our two bright hopes, Ruben and Callum were in. Excellent.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Higuain – Hazard

We guessed that the more Euro-savvy Alonso, Barkley, Pedro and/or Willian would start against Slavia.

For the first time that I can ever remember, Alan and Glenn had swapped seats. I was next to my mate from Perth; I was sat next to Glenn in the Sleepy Hollow.

It was the usual pre-match; “Park Life”, “Liquidator” and the flames and fireworks of twenty-first century football. “The Shed” flag crowd-surfed at the other end. By an odd quirk, it was an exact year since the Chelsea vs. West Ham game in 2017/18, but on that occasion the banners in The Shed sadly commemorated the life and death of Ray Wilkins.

One year ago.

Where does the time go?

RIP Butch.

Right from the kick-off, there was a sense of purpose in our play and we seemed to be able to move the ball ten percent quicker and twenty percent more intelligently. We didn’t seem to be over-passing. We seemed to be moving it at the right time. West Ham were, typically, still singing about the blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park, and all that bollocks. They really need to update that one. Our shouts of encouragement were much better than against Brighton the previous Wednesday, but – for a London derby – not at stratospheric levels.

“Do fifty, Dad” seemed to fall on deaf ears.

There was an early free-kick for Emerson, who has never let himself down in his sadly limited starts thus far, but he arced it high and wide of Fabianski’s goal. There were passages of play which delighted us, with Kante and our Callum forming a good relationship on the right. A shot from N’Golo was fired over.

With around twenty-five minutes of the match played, Ruben played the ball square to Eden Hazard around fifteen yards inside the West Ham half. He set off for goal, a direct line, right into the heart of the box, no fear. We watched – mesmerised? dumbfounded? enraptured? – as his side-stepping dribble took him past a couple of floundering West Ham players, who hardly caught a sniff of his aftershave let alone a sight of the ball. There were seven or eight touches, no more, but the ball was moved with ridiculous speed. One final touch took him free – legs and limbs from the East End arriving so late to the party – and he clipped the ball in with a swipe of the left boot.

Oh my.

What a goal.

I watched as he raced towards the West Ham fans, and I was able to take a few photographs. I originally thought that Eden brought his forearms up to his face, mocking them and their “irons” trademark, but he was simply cupping his ears. His run mirrored that of Frank Lampard in late 2012/13.

Ronnie : “They’ll have to come at us nah.”

Reggie : “Cam on my little diamonds.”

It was a perfect crime from our perfect ten.

We were on song, on and off the pitch. Soon after, Eden found the run of Gonzalo Higuain with a fantastic ball but his fierce shot from an angle was tipped onto the post by the West Ham ‘keeper. In truth, his first touch allowed the ball to get away from him that extra few feet. But our chances were starting to pile up. Eden, from deep, played a long but piercing ball into Callum who skipped and shimmied in from the right wing – acres of space – and his equally strong shot was parried by Fabianski who was by far the busier ‘keeper. On the side-lines, Manuel Pellegrini – death warmed-up – looked even greyer if that is at all possible. The last chance of the half worthy of note fell to Higuain again. From a Kante cross, he brought the ball down to hit rather than attack the ball with his head. That extra half a second allowed a West Ham defender to block. Higuain looked shy of confidence. But it was a thoroughly impressive performance from us in the opening period.

Into the second-half, we prayed for a second goal to make it safe. West Ham have sometimes, only sometimes, provided moments of misery at Stamford Bridge – that hideous 0-4 defeat in 1986, the horror of hearing Julian Dicks’ scream as he scored against us in 1996, that gut-wrenching Paul Kitson goal in 1999 – and I was so aware of the fragility of a slender 1-0 lead.

Eden was the focal point of all our attacks and the centre of attention for those defenders whose job it was to stop us. I have a couple of photographs where he is being hounded by four defenders. How on earth does that feel, when four people are trying to stop a person doing their job? Oh wait a second. Trying to get a load of office furniture despatched when the trailer is running late, there are product shortages, the warehouse team are under-manned and the client is still deliberating about where they want the goods delivered? I guess that comes close.

Eden shimmied into space down below us and slammed a ball across the face of the goal. We “oohed” and “aahed”. It was a real pleasure to see Eden on fire. I commented to Glenn about his ridiculously broad shoulders and short legs. He is Maradona-esque in stature – “like a little eel, little squat man” as Bryon Butler memorably described him, another number ten – and one of the most sublime dribblers of the modern game.

Throughout the second-half, Ruben came into the game more and more. He has great strength in holding off defenders – a little like that man Mikel – and there were a few trademark runs right through the middle. Again, not a Sarri play, but still effective. Callum, on the other hand, tended to disappear a little as the game continued.

The crowd were nervy rather than loud. The evening continued.

West Ham carved a couple of chances down at The Shed as the rain started to fall. Lanzini forced a save from Kepa. The shot was at a comfortable height for our ‘keeper to easily save. Anderson then forced a save too. There was a weak finish at the other end from our Ruben. But then a weak defensive header from Rudiger – hearts in our mouths now – allowed the ball to sit up nicely and a powerful volleyed-drive from Cresswell narrowly missed its intended target.

“Inches” I said to Glenn.

A deep cross found Arnautovic but his goal-bound header was fortuitously headed on, and wide, by Emerson.

Nerves?

Oh yes.

“COME ON CHELS.”

The substitutes appeared.

70 : Ross Barkley for our Ruben.

76 : Olivier Giroud for Higuain.

85 : Pedro for our Callum.

Barkley to Giroud. A low shot at Fabianski. The ball ballooned over.

One more goal. Please.

Unlike the previous home game, virtually everyone was still in the stadium on ninety minutes. Just as it should be, eh?

In the very last minute, Barkley spotted that man Eden in a little space in the box and lofted a lovely ball right to him. I captured both the pass and the low shot from Eden on film. His drilled drive easily zipped past the West Ham ‘keeper.

Chelsea 2 West Ham United 0.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Game over. Third place was ours.

The night was all about Eden Hazard who, undoubtedly, was the star by some ridiculous margin. Rarely have I seen a more mature and pivotal performance from him.

He is the real deal.

Sadly, the Real deal will surely take place over the next few months.

On the drive home, the night continued to improve as I heard positive news from my manager regarding my future holiday plans. I am going to forgo the potential semi-final trip to either Germany or Portugal. But the final in Azerbaijan is on. We just need Chelsea to get there.

Next up, aways in Prague and Liverpool.

Safe travels to those going to Czechia.

I will see some of you on Merseyside.

Tales From A Positive Step

Chelsea vs. Brighton And Hove Albion : 3 April 2019.

We live in interesting times.

The negativity surrounding the unconvincing 2-1 win at Cardiff City on Sunday still seemed to be dominating the thoughts of many before the Wednesday evening game at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. The match in South Wales certainly triggered many reactions and emotions. Taken at face value, we squeaked home – oh so fortuitously – against poor opposition and, on any other day in any other season, that might well have been the end of it. But not this season, not at this moment in time. Debate raged among the Chelsea support about our manager’s aptitude, while the media tended to focus on the loud protests against Maurizio Sarri at the game.

The negativity was at times overwhelming on Sunday and in the following few days.

I was just sick of it.

And then I looked at the league table. Chelsea were in sixth place, tucked in behind the others. And then I looked at Tottenham’s recent form guide which stood at four losses in the last five league games, and I managed to have a sideways look at everything. Was everything quite so apocalyptic? Was this really a horrific season? The Tottenham run of form really shocked me. Not so long ago they were, allegedly, being touted as being in the title race, and not just by those who were soon to frequent the Tottenham High Road once more. It seemed that all was goodness and light with our rivals from N17; a team on the cusp of glory, a respected young manager, the new stadium about to open, young English players making the national team and everything so positive. And yet, there was not a great deal of difference between our relative league positions.

This is not to disguise the fact that Chelsea Football Club is enduring an awkward season. Our troubles are well known and well documented. I won’t bore everyone to death. But it did make me think. At Chelsea, is our glass – like Tottenham’s trophy cabinet – always half empty?

At work on Wednesday, I did an early shift and worked 7am to 3pm. One lad – Andy, a relatively new colleague, I do not know him too well, but he is certainly approachable and not full of nonsense – was working the 6am to 2pm before heading up to London for football too. But he was a Tottenham fan, a season ticket holder, and was hugely excited about their first league game at their new and impressive stadium. I suspect that our individual  approaches to the two games in London were wildly different. My game was –  I was quite sure – going to be all about putting the leg-work in, showing up, trying to support as best I could, enduring the possible poor quality on show, trying not to grumble too much and make some noise. Another game ticked off and hopefully a win.

More than anything else, I just wanted no more negativity. The loud chants against Sarri at Cardiff showed our support, to me anyway, in a bad light. I’ve never been an advocate of loud “demonstration-level” booing and suchlike during games. It just adds to the pressure on the players, on the management team, on the substitutes.

And – to reiterate – we are a top six team in the toughest league going.

As my father used to say “if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Too simplistic? I don’t care.

We are supporters. To me that means that during the ninety-minutes of the framework of the game, we support.

PD again drove to London and I was able to grab a little sleep en route. The pre-match routine was the usual : pints of Peroni at The Goose, bottles of Staropramen at “Simmons.” There was talk with Rob about The Old Firm, there was talk with Walnuts about Stiff Fingers, there was talk with Simon about his son’s trip to Austin in Texas. The football would take care of itself later.

The team was announced and there were wholesale changes from Cardiff.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Hudson-Odoi – Giroud – Hazard

I might have chosen Rudiger and not Christensen, but there were generally few complaints from anyone.

The big story concerned Callum Hudson-Odoi. It would be his first league start and about bloody time.

(Am I the only one who detests the “CHO” moniker? Back in 2006, I warmed to Sean Wright-Phillips’ SWP as it linked itself to SW6. But as for “CHO” and “RLC” – nah. File alongside “Chels.”)

It was a cold night alright. On the cover of the match programme – did the editor know something that we didn’t? – was a highly stylised photograph of our Callum. The scene was set for great things from him on this evening in SW6. Inside the stadium, the three-thousand away fans were virtually all present with a fair few minutes to go. There were noticeable gaps elsewhere. In The Shed and in the Matthew Harding I spotted random empty seats which just meant that people had decided not to attend. In the top upper corners of the East Stand, always the last to sell, whole swathes of blue seats could be seen. These seats were never ever sold in the first place. This was going to be our lowest league gate for quite a while.

Brighton were dressed in a solid racing green shirt and it seemed odd. I had to think back to the last team to show up at Chelsea in a similar colour. My mind raced back to a match with Plymouth Argyle in 1988, but that was it. Over in The Shed goal stood their ‘keeper Mat Ryan – dressed in all black –  and, to me, he looked quite short, quite ridiculously so. Lev Yashin used to wear all black because he claimed that it made him look bigger, more intimidating. The reverse seemed to be the case on this occasion. At the other end, Kepa was dressed in bright orange and looked much taller (he’s two centimetres taller, but you get my point).

Another football folklore tale debunked?

What next?

Bert Trautmann’s ailment in the 1956 FA Cup Final was a sore throat and tickly cough?

The game began, Chelsea attacking The Shed. It was a quiet start to the game, both on and off the pitch. I was pleased that there was no negative noise aimed at anyone, though the change in a more agreeable starting eleven surely quelled any unrest from the natives.

While Brighton fans sung of Wembley – they play Manchester City in the up-coming semi-final – and of our support being awful (which it undoubtedly was), their team seceded from taking part in the more combative parts of the game. There was no desire to challenge, no desire to tackle, no desire to do much at all, except sit deep and let us have the ball. A corner from Eden Hazard found Giroud whose near post header cleared the bar. Our Callum cut in and shot from the right but it was deflected over. A half-chance for Giroud, whose swivel and shot came to nothing. On twenty minutes, a long cross found Solly March who did well to dig out a shot from a tight angle but only found the side netting. Until then Kepa, I think, had not touched the ball at all.

Alan and I spoke about the current state of the nation.

“If anyone had said, back in August, that come the first week of April, we would be in contention for a top four finish and with a strong shout of reaching the Europa League Final, while the manager and his players found their feet – a slow curve – I think most people would have been relatively content.”

“I think the players share some of the responsibility; it’s not just the manager’s fault that we have been lacking desire in some games.”

“The Chelsea story this season is multi-layered.”

“It’s certainly not a page turner.”

Inside, silently, I reminisced about another season under a different Italian manager.

I thought back to 2000/2001.

Claudio Ranieri was an odd choice, in some ways, and he was certainly a relatively untested Italian who had replaced Gianluca Vialli, who was a loved and respected Italian manager. There are obvious comparisons with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Eventually, Ranieri got it right – but with no silverware – and laid the basis for our ridiculous haul of trophies from 2005 to 2012. In retrospect it is hard to believe that Ranieri was given the best part of four seasons at Chelsea. It would not happen today.

Everything was a little humdrum although Callum was showing promise on the wing. However, the chances slowly increased. A run from deep from Eden got the juices flowing but he ran out of space. There was a weak header from Giroud. Callum was probing well and his quality cross towards Dave was sadly not matched by the subsequent header. Eden blasted over from a central position, but the chances were stacking up. Down below me, Yves Bissouma gave Dave the run-around but his cross into the box luckily did not fall to a waiting Brighton attacker.

There was still hardly much noise from anyone in the home sections.

On thirty-eight minutes, Callum skipped past a defender in front of Parkyville and his low cross was turned in at the near post, with the most clinical of touches, by Olivier Giroud. From my angle, I wondered how on earth it had ended up in the net. He was mobbed by his team mates – with Parky looking on, can you see him? – and blew a kiss to the crowd.

Dallow, Spicer : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Pinkie, Cubitt : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Brighton’s defenders had resembled loafing oafs in all-night chemists.

The goal was replayed on the TV screen and the fleet-footed shimmy from our young winger was just magical to watch. More of the same please.

We pressed on and there were a couple of jinking runs from Hazard, one from in his own half, others on the edge of the box. These, I would imagine, might well have drawn the ire of manager Sarri, but with the defence choked of space and with no runners, nor space to run into anyway, Hazard obviously felt that the best way to navigate the Brighton defence was via old-school dribbling rather than the pass-and-move mantra of the gaffer.

And this is where it has all broken down this season.

I suspect that when – if? – it is played correctly, the movement of our players in the manager’s system will mirror that of the White Helmets motorcycle display team, with synchronised runs and dummy runs, bluffs and counter bluffs, runners gliding into space and with runs using obtuse angles. It’ll be like a Busby Berkeley musical on grass.

In the meantime, we have to do what we have to do.

One Hazardous run was halted abruptly but David Luiz banged the ball against the wall. Late on in the half, after another dance into the box by Eden, there was an embarrassing air-shot from our Callum.

In that first-half, with lovely promise shown by Callum, our Ruben seemed to play within himself. I hoped for greater things in the second period. At the half-time break, I turned to Alan and became a ground hopper bore.

“You realise Slavia Prague’s rebuilt stadium used to be called the Eden Stadium?”

Ah, Prague. The joy of European travel. I know that I decided not to go to Czechia – new name, same place – for our up-coming game, but a boy can dream can’t he? I loved Prague on my two – ridiculously brief – previous visits (en route to Jablonec in 1994, en route to Munich 2012) and I spent a few wistful moments dreaming of the Czech capital. It is, like Budapest, a ground-hoppers’ paradise. In fact, if I was going, I could visit all of the five major stadia on a beautifully straight diagonal waking tour.

From south-east to north-west –

Slavia Prague.

Bohemians.

Viktoria Zizkov.

Sparta Prague.

Dukla Prague.

And then there is, at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, the Strahov national stadium – where it was rumoured that we might have to play Zizkov in 1994 – and alongside it, the second-largest stadium ever built. This once held a monstrous 250,000 and was a vast area surrounded by a single-tier of terrace that was home to the “Spartakiada” for many years. It is now home to Sparta’s training ground and has enough space for nine full-size football pitches.  I can vividly remember a Friday night in 1976, right after an edition of “Open All Hours” on BBC2 if memory serves, when I watched the coverage of this annual show of communist strength via synchronised gymnastics that Busby Berkeley, and probably Maurizio Sarri too, would have been proud. It simply blew my mind. It is an image that has stayed with me for over forty years. Maybe I need to visit Prague again, maybe on a weekend over the coming summer. All of those stadia, all of those teams. Watch this space.

Later in the half-time break, I politely asked Alan to get me a Dukla Prague fridge magnet.

“It’s all I want for Christmas.”

Blimey, too many obscure musical references.

Back to London. The second-half started with us attacking the Matthew Harding. Hazard wriggled into the box, Luiz slammed a low cross towards the goal. Ten minutes in, a deep cross from Jorginho found the leap of our Callum – who looked offside to me – but his header fell into the arms of Yashin Junior.

“Oh Hudson-Odoi.”

At last we made some noise.

On the hour, Ruben played the ball in to Eden, who wriggled himself into space and sold Lewis Dunk a wonderful dummy before curling a wonderful effort wide of the ‘keeper and into a gaping net.

GET IN.

I was lucky to capture his run, jump and fist pump towards us.

Three minutes later, Jorginho to Hazard to Ruben. There was a quick appraisal of where he was, where the goal was, where the ‘keeper was, and our Ruben took one touch, opened up his body and despatched a firm shot – a little more loft and pace than Eden’s effort – which dropped beautifully high into the Brighton goal. It was sensational. I was again lucky to shoot the resulting elation from him and his team mates.

Brighton were rocking.

Teetering on their heels, they had offered nothing all game and were now well and truly out of it.

The game continued, but against an increasingly odd backdrop as thousands decided to leave early. I suppose it is, at least, better to leave for home when Chelsea is winning 3-0 than when we are losing 3-0. Regardless, the sight of acres of blue plastic was a jolt to the senses. Brighton sang about “Sussex by the Sea” and we watched as we continued to attack. Ruben’s strike seemed to give him confidence and a shot was drilled wide. A wide cross from Eden found a stretching N’Golo Kante who could only push it over the bar from close in.

The substitutions were made.

Davide for Dave.

Mateo for Ruben.

Willian for Eden.

Brighton, oddly, came to life a little in the last quarter, but the match was won and lost by then.

At the final whistle, the stadium was only two-thirds full. But it had been a reasonable game. I thought that in the immediate aftermath, fans were lavishing a lot of praise on Ruben, who had been fine and had scored a fantastic goal and yet had hardly influenced the game as much as some would believe. Maybe I saw a different match. But there were many more positives than negatives. This 3-0 win against Brighton just seemed a lot more wholesome than the 2-1 win against Cardiff.

Phew.

On the walk back to PD’s car, after demolishing yet another hot dog and onions from “Chubby’s Grill”, I chatted to Long Tall Pete and Liz.

We were of the same opinion about Ruben.

We looked ahead to our run-in.

“We can finish top four, of course we can. But our little sequence of games against these mediocre teams, and I am going to include the Europa League teams too, are not going to prepare us for our two horrific games at Anfield and Old Trafford. They will be so different. And I’m not convinced we can step up in those games.”

On Monday evening – continuing a run of nineteen consecutive games without a Saturday game  – we meet up again at Stamford Bridge for the visit of West Ham United.

I will see you there.

Tales From Both Sides Of The Ninian Park Gates

Cardiff City vs. Chelsea : 31 March 2019.

After away games in Ukraine and Scouseland we were now due to play our third consecutive away match on foreign soil. On the last day of March and the first day of summer we were headed over the Severn Bridge to Cardiff to play Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. The Everton away game seemed ages ago. The Sunday trip into Wales could not come quick enough.

This was a drive of only seventy-five miles, a relatively brief excursion, but it would be a journey back into time too.

Let me explain.

There might have been the chance that our game at Cardiff City in 2019 might only have induced the slightest of mentions of our epic match at Ninian Park during the 1983/84 promotion campaign. I have already written about that encounter in two of these match reports already – during 2008/09, the twenty-fifth anniversary, and 2013/14, our last visit to Cardiff – and in normal circumstances I might have penned a brief mention. And then the Footballing Gods got involved. The match was moved to Sunday 31 March 2019, and it did not take me long to realise that this date would mark, exactly, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 game.

I mentioned the anniversary on a “Chelsea In The 1980s” page on Facebook during the preceding week and there were many replies, most of which seemed to centre on the crowd trouble that day rather than the game itself. But it was certainly a day that many recalled easily. And football hooliganism was often an inherent part of the day to day travails and travels of a Chelsea supporter in that era, and I suppose I should not have been shocked by the myriad of memories stirred by the mere mention of “Cardiff 1984”. There has always been a morbid fascination with hooliganism at football for many, much in the same way that violent films and TV series always stir some basic instinct among us. If “The Sopranos” was about opera singers and not New Jersey mobsters and if “Peaky Blinders” was about Birmingham milliners I suspect that viewing figures for both series would never have reached such stratospheric levels.

But more of 1984 later. You have been warned.

I set off for “Welsh Wales” – as we call it in Somerset, thus not confusing it with the local cathedral city of Wells – at just before eight o’clock. The usual Fun Boy Three of PD, Parky and little old me were joined by PD’s son Scott and Johnny, a local lad who we first met prior to the League Cup Final. It would be his first ever Chelsea away game. Tickets for this game seemed to be springing up all over the place. The media were in a shit-stirring mood and claimed that Chelsea fans were boycotting games after falling out of love with manager Sarri. I suspect that the glut of tickets for Cardiff City might well have been more to do with the game falling on Mothering Sunday.

Even football supporters – and hooligans and wannabe hooligans too – love their muvvers, just like the Kray twins.

The drive into Wales was so easy, though the fantastic weather of the previous day was nowhere to be seen. Heading over the Severn Estuary, it was all grey and cloudy. However, I was parked up on Mermaid Quay at just before 10am and we soon made the local pub “The Mount Stuart” our base. We devoured our various breakfasts and, while others got stuck into a variety of ciders and lagers, I made ample use of free coffee refills, as if I suspected that the upcoming game might induce torpor. There was a Cardiff Bay 10km race taking place and the pub was mobbed with runners ahead of the 11am start, but they soon vacated the large pub and we settled on high stools near the bar and overlooking the murky grey waters of the bay. Outside were flags of St. David and, in the distance, the cranes of commerce and trade.

A Cardiff City fan, John – Adidas gazelles and a Lacoste rain jacket – befriended us, and we chatted away about all sorts. Joining the dots, I think it is wise for me to assume that he had a chequered past as he knew of various names and events of days gone by, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. He remembered 1984. He spoke of the 2010 FA Cup game. But he was a friendly lad and was kind enough to take our team photo once we had been joined by fellow Chelsea fans Charlotte and Paul from Yeovil. I found it interesting that John mentioned that fans of Swansea City  – he called them “that lot” – and Cardiff City, especially in times when both teams existed further down the football pyramid, often had a second team, an English team. Again joining the dots, I reckoned his other team was Liverpool since he spoke highly of their 2001 FA Cup win in Cardiff against Arsenal and of “a mate” – oh yeah? – who went to Kiev for last May’s European Cup Final. His wife was taking part in the run. I think he was happy to have company while he waited for her return. We wished each other well.

We made tracks. I had arranged a parking place right outside the ground. In the middle distance I kept spotting the towering roof supports of the Millennium Stadium in the nearby city centre. It dominates the skyline.

There has always been something very special about spotting a football stadium.

In the late ‘sixties or early ‘seventies, I have a vivid memory of my father driving through Cardiff to visit relatives in Llanelli – in the days when the M4 in South Wales was still being built – and him pointing out the floodlights of Ninian Park. After Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, Ninian Park was almost certainly the second football ground that I ever saw.

We were parked up at about 1.30pm. There was just time – but only just – for me to splinter away from the others and have a rushed walk around the new Cardiff City Stadium. I was unable to do so in 2014, when we similarly enjoyed a pre-match drink on Mermaid Quay but then left it very late in arriving at the game.

Outside the entrance to the away section on Sloper Road, police cars were parked up, with their blue lights flashing, and a fair few policemen were walking in a mob of Chelsea. The game had recently been elevated to a high risk “Cat C” ranking.

I walked on, and I soon spotted a feature which linked Cardiff City’s past with their future. The old Ninian Park used to sit on the northern side of Sloper Road. The new stadium sits on the southern side. I was heartened to see that the old Ninian Park gates – and their concrete surrounds – were not demolished but were moved en masse to form the basis of an entrance plaza (admittedly half-arsed and scruffy) into the new stadium.

I definitely approved.

And my mind returned to 1984, quite easily in fact.

On that Saturday thirty-five years ago, Glenn and I had met up at Wallbridge Café opposite the Frome railway station. Inside, I was met by a sobering site. There was one other Chelsea fan – Dave – but also a couple of Frome’s Finest, two lads who I knew were only coming along for a bundle; Gulliver, a fan of Manchester United, and Sedge, a fan of Arsenal. Alongside them was Winnie, a friend from my year at school, who was anything but a wannabe hooligan. We made our way to Wales by train. As we neared Newport, I remember peering out at the scruffy grass alongside the tracks as if it was yesterday. At Cardiff train station, I met up with another school friend, Rick – a Pompey fan, studying at a polytechnic in Pontypridd – who was lured to Cardiff for the game.

Glenn and I soon lost the others and made a bee-line for Ninian Park. We knew that there would be pockets of trouble at various locations in the city centre and en route to the stadium. We kept our heads down, and feared the prospect of locals approaching us and asking us the usual “got the time mate”? We surmised that it would be better to get inside the away end early. I always remember that I was, in fact, the very first Chelsea fan to pass through the “click click” of the away turnstiles. Having the entire away end to myself, if only for a fleeting few seconds, was a memorable moment. Opposite the huge Bob Bank loomed, a massive terrace which backed onto some railway sidings and whose roof was etched with a ginormous Captain Morgan advertisement. To my left the main stand. Straight ahead the roof of the home end. Throughout the game, Chelsea fans would end up in three sides of the ground. The weather that day was grey and overcast too.

I continued my walk around the Cardiff City Stadium. Since my only other visit in 2014, a new tier has been added to the stand nearest Sloper Road. It has the infamous red seats, and the less said about that the better. The stadium now holds a healthy 33,000. There was a poorly executed statue depicting Fred Keenor, the club’s captain in 1927 when, as any good schoolboy will know, Cardiff City took the FA Cup out of England for the only time. I liked the fact that the signage on the main stand is an exact replica of that used at Ninian Park. The same words, the same font, though oddly in light grey and not Bluebirds blue. But I approved of that too. It was another nice nod to the past.

On the way in to the away section, there seemed to be an over-bearing presence of OB, but the security searches were completed with the minimum of fuss.

After six coffees, I was still buzzing.

I made my way in, behind the goal this time, and took my seat alongside Alan, Gary and PD. The others were dotted around.

Mother’s Day had won. There were quite a few empty seats in both home and away sections.

The teams came on. The yellow and blue “Chelsea Here, Chelsea There” banner was held aloft to my right.

The game began without me knowing the team. I soon worked it out.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kovacic – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Willian

So, no Kante, no Hazard, no Hudson-Odoi.

Words failed me, and not for the first time. Our Callum was undoubtedly the talk of the town, the player on everyone’s lips, but Sarri could not find a place for him against lowly Cardiff City. I could not get inside Sarri’s head. I was befuddled.

The game began with a few half-hearted shouts of support from the Chelsea faithful. But it was a slow start to the match. Both Alan and I were surprised that the home fans were not getting behind their team. However, Saturday had been a particularly painful time for them with both Burnley and Southampton victorious. Perhaps they had simply lost the will to battle and fight. Their team were happy to let us have the ball. But Neil Warnock is a wily old sod.

“Let them have it. Save yourselves. They’ll soon tie themselves up in knots.”

It was a cold day. I was glad that I had my jacket. The first real chance of the game fell to Pedro who danced his way into a central position and curled an effort narrowly over the bar. Soon after, a similar effort from the home team – in all blue, the aberration of red shirts consigned to the rubbish bin of memory – just span past the far post.

I turned to Gary : “I think their effort was closer than Pedro’s.”

We had most of the ball, but did fuck all with it. Sound familiar? I noted that it took until twenty-five minutes for any chant of noise and menace to emanate from the away fans and a further five minutes for the whole end to be united in song.

Sigh.

It was dire, both on and off the pitch. I had to step in when one of the traveling party continually ranted about virtually every Chelsea player. I just wanted to see positive noise. That’s our role as supporters, right?

Did we have any other chances? I captured a Willian effort on goal from a free-kick. There was a scramble in which the derided Alonso failed to poke home. Cardiff rarely threatened.

“Oh God, this is awful.”

In 1984 it wasn’t much better.

We had been riding high since the timely addition of Mickey Thomas in January added the requisite amount of energy and skill to our promotion-chasing team. My previous game that season had been the iconic 1-1 draw at promotion favourites Newcastle United. Chelsea were the in-form team, closing in on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We had gone into the game at Ninian Park high on confidence. Although Dale Jasper was a young debutant alongside captain Colin Pates we did not foresee any trouble in garnering three points. As the away end filled up, I was well aware of the dress code of the day. Many were wearing those blue and white Patrick cagoules.  There were Pringles and Nike Wimbledons everywhere. For the very first time, I had joined in too; a yellow, light grey and navy Gallini sweatshirt, a £10 purchase in Bath the previous weekend, though if I am honest Gallini didn’t really cut it. It is a brand that is rarely mention in the various “clobber” pages on the internet these days. However, I did see three of four other lads wearing the same top that afternoon in Wales. As the kick-off neared, outbreaks of violence erupted in a variety of locations all over the stadium.

Chelsea were in town.

However, at half-time we were losing 3-0. Just like in 2019, we had been dire. We were shell-shocked. We had been second-best throughout.

Cardiff City 3 Chelsea 0.

Altogether now –

Fackinell.

Back to life, back to reality. In 2019, there were whispers between Alan and myself that this game might well mirror the Everton match where we had been well on top in the first forty-five minutes but had not prised open the home defence. The worry was, undoubtedly, that there was only a couple of chances against Cardiff rather than the five or six against Everton. Alan slipped in the phrase “we’re on the road to nowhere” and I had reminded him that this phrase had aided me on the naming of a blog a few years ago for a game at Manchester City.

“Tales From The Road To Nowhere.”

Alan replied “You can call this one ‘Tales From Groundhog Day.’”

Within seconds of the restart, a cross from Harry Arter was excellently clipped in by Victor Camarasa.

“Groundhog Day!” yelped Alan.

We stood silent. It is a horrible feeling being in the bear pit of an away section with the home fans baying.

“One nil to the sheepshaggers.”

The away fans, rather than support the team, turned on the manager.

“We want Sarri out, say we want Sarri out.”

Oh great. I didn’t join in. I understood everyone’s frustrations, but surely with a team being 1-0 down and in need of encouragement, we needed to dig deep, real deep, and muster up some noise from the depths of our souls. I’ll say it again. That’s our role as supporters, right?

The Cardiff fans responded : “We want Sarri in.”

Oscar Wilde need not be worried.

Alan commented “it’s getting toxic.”

Indeed it was.

“FUCK SARRIBALL.”

I looked over to the bench. The manager must’ve heard. No reaction. Probably just as well.

Eden Hazard replaced Pedro on fifty-three minutes and the Belgian immediately lit up the pitch. A free-kick involving Willian playing the ball through Ross Barkley’s legs to David Luiz resulted in the wall being hit. The groans continued.

There was a strong shout for a Cardiff penalty after a messy challenge by Rudiger on Morrison. No whistle. Phew.

Our Ruben replaced – shock, horror – Jorginho, who had been quite terrible.

We dominated most of the ball now but despite countless wriggles and shimmies by Eden, Willian and others it looked like Cardiff’s back line would simply not be breached. I lost count of the times Alonso played the ball back rather than into the box. Frustration was everywhere. But I stood silent, not enjoying much of anything. I contemplated us winning all four home games, but easily losing all away games, here at Cardiff, at Anfield, at Old Trafford, at Leicester City. The thought of those two away games at Liverpool and Manchester United are certainly starting to cause me pain.

An effort from Willian went wide. The ineffectual Higuain shot meekly but was then replaced by Olivier Giroud.

Three substitutes used, but Callum stayed on the bench. Maybe Sarri was resting him for his next England game.

A cross from wide was whipped into the box but with Chelsea legs stretching out to meet the low ball, a Cardiff defender managed to reach the ball first. We were awarded a corner.

There were six minutes to go.

In 1984, Kerry Dixon stroked a low shot inside the post from outside the box and this was met with a roar of approval from the Chelsea hordes, but surely this was just a rogue consolation goal.

In 2019, the corner was played in by Willian. Alonso got a touch and – we breathed in expectantly – the ball reached Azpilicueta who headed home. I immediately sensed “offside” but there was no flag, no reaction, the goal stood.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

I turned to Alan.

“Bloody hell. Six minutes to go. Just like 1984. Maybe we’ll draw 3-3.”

A lucky escape at the other end. Another clumsy Rudiger challenge, but after a long deliberation, the referee only gave a yellow card. Was he the last man? It looked messy. Phew.

In 1984, with two minutes to go Colin Lee – the experienced striker now playing right back – found himself inside the six-yard box and bundled the ball home. Game well and truly on. The Chelsea crowd went doolally. We were losing 3-2 but the game sprang to life.

In 2019, there was praise for Chelsea, but the chants of “Maurizio” dried up around Christmas.

In 1984, on ninety minutes, a Cardiff defender handled the ball. A penalty.

Pandemonium.

Nigel Spackman slammed it home.

The away end erupted. Unfettered by seats, we jumped and shouted, and stumbled, and screamed, and hugged, and kissed. Our arms were thrusted heavenwards, our voices sang roars of triumph. As we marched out onto the bleak Cardiff streets, we were invincible.

In 2019, deep into stoppage time, a cross from Willian on the right perfectly found our Ruben. I snapped just as he lent forward and headed the ball towards goal. Just like in 1984 – all those years ago – the Chelsea end erupted. A leap from Ruben in front of me. I was screaming with joy. No chance of a photo.

Carpe diem.

Get in.

I did capture the aftermath.

Joy unbounded.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, bach.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds, boyo.”

There’s nice, look you.

Smiles, relief.

And then Barkley shot wildly over.

Oh boyo.

And that was that.

Despite the win, we all knew that we had been quite awful for eighty minutes. It was truly woeful. It was like watching players walking through treacle.

Football, bloody hell.

In 1984, on the train back to Frome, we regrouped, but two of our party were missing. Dave and Gulliver had been nicked for something or other. It had to happen. They were to spend the night in a police cell. On that train ride home, with me sitting quietly in one of those old compartments, a lad appeared in the corridor and he was serenaded by those who knew him.

“Daniels is our leader. Daniels is our leader.”

It was PD.

It was the first time that I had ever met him.

He was dressed in jeans, DMs and full regalia. He was a fearsome sight.

I had mentioned this to PD when I had picked him up at eight o’clock.

“Me and Nicks and Andy thought that we’d go into the Cardiff end. We got in, looked around, this, that and the other, and soon left.”

Outside the away end, the 2019 party regrouped. We knew how poorly we had played. We were no fools. But we had won. At this stage in the season, three points is all. The traffic heading home was ridiculous. We were caught in an hour-long traffic jam just leaving the immediate area of the stadium. I slowly edged north and then south and then, eventually, west. I looked over at the roof of Cardiff City’s current home, the roof of the Millennium Stadium and imagined Ninian Park in between the two.

Thanks for the memories, Cardiff. I have a feeling that our paths will not be crossing next season.

On Wednesday, we play Brighton at Stamford Bridge, our first home game in bloody ages.

See you there.

The 1984 Game.

Many will be seeing this for the first time. Fill your boots.

Part One.

Part Two.

The 1984 Cast.

Chris – I still go to Chelsea, you lucky people.

Glenn – still goes to Chelsea.

Dave – he occasionally goes to Chelsea.

PD – still goes to Chelsea.

Nicks – still goes to Chelsea.

Andy – still goes to Chelsea.

Gulliver – now a Millwall fan, he goes occasionally and I see him around town occasionally for a chat.

Sedge – I see him around town occasionally.

Winnie – I see him around town occasionally.

Rick – a Pompey season ticket holder, now living in Portsmouth, and at the EFL Trophy game against Sunderland.

Tales From Lime Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 17 March 2019.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

We were slightly delayed touching down at Heathrow on Saturday evening after our four-day jamboree in Kiev. There had been high winds, and much rain, in England while our stay in Ukraine had been relatively mild with clear skies and startling sun. We had been truly blessed. But our Air France plane needed to enter the stacking system over South-East England as the winds caused delays in landing. As we circled above London, I commented to my two travelling companions L-Parky and P-Diddy that we had gone through the whole of Saturday without knowing a single football result. We eventually hit terra firma at about 7.30pm. Into the car an hour later, we then began the homeward journey. PD soon fired up his moby to check on the scores. I had forgotten that the FA Cup had shared the billing with the Premier League. Manchester City had squeaked past Swansea City in the cup. There were no games that had affected our position in the league.

Thankfully, the rain soon stopped on the drive home. I dropped Parky off at about 10.30pm, PD at 10.45pm, and I was home at 11pm.

At 11.25pm, I wrote the inevitable “just got in” post on Facebook.

“Kiev. The final reckoning; four days, five goals, a “few” drinks, almost nine hundred photos, one chicken Kiev and thousands of memories. The photos won’t get shared until Monday evening as we are off to Everton tomorrow. Thanks to those who walked alongside me. You know who you are.

Kiev. You were bloody fantastic.”

At 7.25am the next morning, there was another post on Facebook.

“Up early for another couple of days away following The Great Unpredictables.

Let’s Go To Everton.”

On The Road.

I had woken at 6.45am. It felt like I had only slept for an hour. I soon realised that Wolves had beaten Manchester United the previous evening. The news had completely passed me by until then. I guzzled down a black coffee before setting off for Liverpool. There was no Parky with us on this away day. After collecting PD at 7.45am, I made my way over to Warminster to collect Young Jake who was Parky’s late substitute. It would be another new ground for him. I fuelled up at Yarnbrook – petrol for the car, a double-espresso for me – and headed through Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and skirted past Bath. It was a familiar route north. Thankfully it was a mainly dry drive. There was a McBreakfast at Strensham with another coffee. At Stafford, I was feeling exceptionally drowsy and so bought two Red Bulls. The hangover from Kiev was real, but the caffeine kept me going, six hits all told.

It all paid off. I gathered a second wind and was fine for the rest of the day.

I made the oh-so familiar approach into Liverpool, and was soon parked up at The Liner Hotel which would be the base for our stay. Yes, dear reader, I had long ago decided that driving five hundred miles in one day after the exertions of Kiev would be foolhardy. I was parked-up at about 1pm.

Despite this being St. Patrick’s Day – celebrated in this city more than most in England – I had been lucky enough to get a great a price for this hotel, which soon impressed us with its stylings and ambiance. Checking in time was 2pm so we headed over to a boozer that I had researched a few weeks back.

A Pub On The Corner.

“Ma Egertons” was a comfy and cosy little pub, with just a snug and a saloon, and it boasted a reasonable selection of ales, cheap prices and the locals were friendly. A high percentage of Scousers that I have met in real life have been fine, just fine. This might not be a popular opinion among our support but I cannot lie. There were a few Evertonians sitting close by and they did not bother us. The pub faces the rear doors of the Liverpool Empire and its walls were covered in photographs of those that had walked the boards over the years. My distaste of large and impersonal super pubs has been aired before. This one was just up my street or Lord Nelson Street to be precise. Three pints of lager went down very well. We were joined by Alan and Seb, father and son, from Atherstone in the Midlands who had travelled up by train. There was some talk about our current ailments – club, ownership, team, spirit, hunger, manager – and it all got too depressing for my liking. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.

My pre-match thoughts were simply this.

“Goodison Park has often been a tough venue for us, but Everton are shite.”

I am expecting a letter from Sky to appear on my doormat any minute for me to join their team of football pundits. Such bitingly perceptive analysis surely needs a wider audience.

We checked into the hotel and caught a cab up to Goodison. Despite the cabbie wearing a royal blue sweatshirt, he was a “red”. The cab fare was less than a tenner. Bargain.

The Old Lady.

Now then, anyone who has been reading these journals of my life on the road with Chelsea since 2008 will know how much I love – adore even – Goodison Park. If we had more time, and with this being Jake’s first visit, I would undoubtedly have completed my usual clockwise patrol around the four stands. But the desire was to “get in” so I followed suit. We met up with Deano, newly arrived back in Blighty after a couple of months in India. He was with Mick, also from Yorkshire, who has popped into these reports a few times of late.

With the plans to move into a new stadium – at Bramley Moore Dock – in around 2023, there will not be many more visits to this architectural delight at the northern end of Stanley Park.

Maybe four more.

So here are a few photographs to augment this match report. On a previous visit to Goodison, there was a lone image of Alan Ball displayed from the balcony of the Gwladys Street balcony. On this day, pre-match, images of Dixie Dean, Alex Young, Joe Royle, Bob Latchford, Graeme Sharpe and Duncan Ferguson – “the number nines” – were displayed above some twinkling mosaics.

Of course, I would have preferred an image of Tommy Lawton too.

In the cramped concourse, a rare treat for me; a bottle of lager. I chatted to the Bristol lot, our memories still fresh from our break in Ukraine.

Another Life.

Just as I started school in the spring of 1970, Everton won the League Championship on 1 April and Chelsea won the FA Cup on 29 April. My memory, as I have detailed many times before, is of the name “Chelsea” being bandied about in the schoolyard and I was consciously or subconsciously – who knows? – attracted to the name.

It so easily could have been Everton.

I could so easily be an Everton fan.

After all, Goodison Park was the only stadium that my father had ever visited until I came along. It would have felt right, in some ways, for Dad to encourage an Evertonian future for me.

At such a young age, I had no real control of my life choices.

I wasn’t even five.

But then along came Peter Osgood and I was Chelsea for life.

But in April 1970, my life witnessed another “Sliding Doors” moment for sure.

Those Final Moments.

While we have “Park Life” and “The Liquidator” before games at Chelsea – and “Blue Is The Colour” (and “One Step Beyond” if the moment requires it) after games – at Everton we are treated to a couple of Toffee-coloured tunes.

“And it’s a Grand Old Team to play for.”

“Z-Cars.”

I always think the first one is sung by Lily Savage. It does sound rather camp.

The second one is class, pure class.

It always gets me excited for the game ahead. Those drums and pipes, the extended introduction, the sense of anticipation, the glimpse of the players emerging from the ridiculously tight tunnel.

The Team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We had jettisoned the blue socks of Kiev to go all yellow.

Everton these days play in white socks just as they did in 1970.

Yellow Fever.

Yet again, I found myself behind the goal-line at Goodison, but with a clear unimpeded view of the pitch from the second row of the Upper Bullens Road. There were no fans allowed in the first row. Alongside me was Tombsie, one of those who I see everywhere yet don’t really know at all, and he was with his son. He was clearly another fan of Goodison Park.

“Proper stadium.”

We bossed the first-half, no doubt. Our early movement was fine. Ross Barkley – booed, obviously – was neat, and Jorginho was excellent. As ever, the energy of Kante was wonderful to witness. We were all over them. There were a couple of early chances for Eden Hazard, twisting and turning – and if I am honest, probably hogging the ball too much for Maurizio Sarri’s liking – and finding pockets of space everywhere.

Eden Hazard was soon peppering the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street. A shot low after a snake-like wriggle inside the box at the near post forced a late save from Jordan Pickford. Another low drive from a feint further out rattled the other post with the ‘keeper well beaten.

It was, simply, all us.

A magnificent lofted ball from Jorginho found the fine run of the lurking Higuain but the Argentinian was not supported by any team mate and the chance went begging.

After this very bright start, the game settled to a gentler pace. But Everton seemed to be totally lacking confidence, concentration, class and cohesion.

At last a chance for Everton, but Calvert-Lewin drove the ball well over.

There was a head-scratching moment at the other end when Barkley nimbly danced past some defenders with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have liked, but his attempted cross or shot was sliced into thin air.

“What the hell happened there?”

Shots from both Jorginho and then Barkley were fired straight down Pickford’s throat.

Our strikes on goal were mounting up, but – we know our football – so were the concerns among the away contingent that we could well pay for our wasting of these good chances.

Another shot for Everton but Gomes fired one straight at Kepa.

The Chelsea chances were drying up now, and Pedro should have fared better after freeing up some space wasted a good chance, striking the ball wide from a central position. From a Sigurdsson free-kick, an Evertonian header not cleared the bar but the roof if the Park Lane Stand.

Pedro then had two chances. A prod wide, and then – after creating some space with one of his trademark spins and dribbles – a shot which he narrowly dragged past the right-hand post.

The whistle blew for half-time. It had been all Chelsea. We had been all over Everton like a rash.

They had been hit with an attack of yellow fever.

Yellow Bellies.

Within the first two minutes of the re-start, the mood of the game completely changed. Calvert Lewin drilled a long ball into the six-yard box from out wide and there seemed to be a lot of ball-watching. Soon after, Kepa reacted well at the near post to deflect an effort over.

With just four minutes of the second-half played, our afternoon on Merseyside collapsed. From a corner in that lovely part of Goodison that marks the coming together of the two remaining Archibald Leitch stands, Calvert-Lewin met the incoming ball firmly. Kepa did well to block it, but Richarlison – until then, a spectator – turned the ball in. He reeled away and I felt sick.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

At last the Evertonians made some noise, so quiet until then.

The home team, though not creating a great deal, found themselves in our half more now. I had this quirky and whimsical notion that with them attacking a lot more, the game would open up more and we might, just might, be able to exploit some open spaces. But our chances were rare. A rushed slash from Alonso which only hit the side netting summed up our efforts.

We were, visibly, going to pieces.

There were no leaders cajoling others and nobody keen to take ownership of the ball. It reminded me of a similarly painful showing – a 0-2 defeat – at the same ground seven years earlier under the tutelage of Vilas-Boas.

The mood in the away section was now turning venomous.

PD alongside me was hurling abuse every thirty seconds.

I stayed quiet.

I was just hurting.

Just after the hour, there were piss-taking roars as Ross Barkley was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Then Olivier Giroud replaced the increasingly immobile Higuain.

Just after, a rash tackle took place inside the Chelsea penalty area. It was up the other end and my sightlines were not great. But it looked a nailed-on penalty. Alonso was the guilty culprit and PD almost exploded with rage.

We waited.

Sigurdsson struck low, Kepa saved, but the rebound was tucked home by the Icelandic midfielder.

Everton 2 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced the now ineffective Jorginho.

We had a little flurry of attacking activity with our Callum coming inside nicely and flashing a shot at Pickford but the England ‘keeper tipped it over.

It had been – severe cliché warning – a classic game of two halves.

And we had been hung, drawn and quartered by our lack of guile, togetherness and steel. Our confidence had seeped out of every pore as each minute passed by. And there was a shocking lack of courage and passion.

We had been yellow-bellied incompetents.

Sigh. I have done a lot of sighing this season.

My comment as we slowly made our way out of the wooden top tier summed it all up.

“Sarri’s team talk at half-time must have been fucking diamond.”

We walked down Walton Lane and caught a cab – another “red” – on the junction of the road that bends towards Anfield. We headed down into the city centre, tails well and truly between our legs.

And I knew that there would be a meltdown taking place everywhere. I was just too tired for all of that. New fans, old fans, arguments, talk of disarray, bitter comments, questions of loyalty, a civil war in the camp.

Sigh.

A sub par season? Yep. Compared to the past ten or fifteen years. But my love of this club keeps me going.

I am no football snowflake.

Lime Street.

I found myself outside Lime Street station for the very first time – incredibly – since a game at Anfield in December 1987. On every single visit to Merseyside with Chelsea since that game – all forty-two of them – I have enjoyed pre-matches either up at the pubs near the two stadia, around Albert Dock, or at a couple of locations nearer the river.

Please believe me when I say that Lime Street after games at both ends of Stanley Park in the ‘eighties was as an intimidating place for away fans as any location in England. In those days, we would be kept waiting inside the grounds – allowing home supporters to regroup in the city centre – and we would be walked down to Lime Street en masse. There were even, possibly apocryphal, tales of scallies in flats with air rifles taking pot shots at Mancunians.

Around the station, it would often be a free-for-all.

I remarked to Jake that on my very first visit to Goodison Park, in March 1986, I was chased by some scallies from Lime Street to the National Express Coach Station just around the corner. I was with two college mates – Pete and Mac – and we managed to jump onto a coach headed for Stoke and Stafford just before the lads caught us.

It was a very narrow escape.

The memories of Lime Street returned. It felt so odd to be walking around an area for the first time in over thirty-two years. The large and imposing St. George’s Hall – images of Bill Shankly and his hubris back in 1974 and then the Hillsborough campaigners in more recent times – was floodlit in green for St. Patrick’s Day.

Memories of the area returned.

The infamous graffiti on a bridge on the slow approach to Lime Street : “Cockneys Die.”

Catching a bus up to Anfield in May 1985 and attempting to put on a Scouse accent so not to be spotted as an away fan.

On a visit to Goodison Park later in 1986, I remember seeing that the Cocteau Twins were in concert at the nearby Royal Court Theatre. I was sure that night that Pat Nevin would have stayed up in Liverpool to attend. I remember travelling back to Stoke, totally gutted that I had not realised that my favourite band were in town.

So many memories.

Jake and PD piled in to a local chippy. We tried our best to dodge the locals who were flitting between boozers. Shenanigans – one of the most over-worked words in the US these days, but quite appropriate on a St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool – were in full force. Being three Chelsea fans among a sea of red, blue and green Liverpudlians and Evertonians on St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool city centre is a potentially high risk activity.

PD retired for the night.

Kiev and Liverpool had taken its toll.

Into “Ma Egerton’s” for one last pint, and – for me – my first ever bowl of Scouse.

Unlike the football, it warmed me.

It was an early night for me too. Over the road to the hotel, and a relaxing evening watching the Real Betis vs. Barcelona game, a rare treat for me. I very rarely watch football on TV.

We now have a break from Chelsea for a long fortnight and I think I need it.

After Ukraine and England, Wales next.

See you in Cardiff.

Tales From The Yellow And Blue

Dynamo Kiev vs. Chelsea : 14 March 2019.

Full length murals on the sides of grimy apartment blocks. Raised wooden walkways. Flowers on recent roadside memorials. Soaring residential buildings brutally blotting out the sky. Clusters of ornate gold-topped domes. The wide expanse of the Dnipro River. The striking faces of tall young women. The wrinkled faces of crouching old men. The awkwardly ornate buildings circling Independence Square. Statues and monuments. Cellar bars open twenty-four hours. Prostitutes walking the pavements. The storied governmental buildings of Kreschtayk Street. The “D” of the local football team. The pride of the city. The Cyrillic alphabet. Fading memories of recent sieges and riots. The orange revolution with snipers on the streets. Steep cobbled roads. Men pestering for photographs with monkeys. Outlines in white paint marking where innocents fell in 2014. The yellow and blue of the national flag. The sadness of strife.

This was Kiev.

And another magical trip to a far-flung part of Europe with the love of my life.

Back in the autumn of 2015, I didn’t attend our 0-0 draw in the Champions League in Kiev against Dynamo as had I elected to go to the other two group phase games in Portugal and Israel instead. Those who went to Ukraine reported back that it was a historical city, with some great sights, but it had been rather dicey in places. I easily remembered that some innocent Chelsea supporters in a city centre bar were attacked by local hooligans on the night before the game – I distinctly recollect searching for the location of the bar on Google Earth on my home PC that evening – and there was talk that several mates were very thankful that a heavy army and police presence was available to escort the away hardcore to the stadium.

But this time, in 2019, I simply had to attend. The lure of an edgy, historic city was just too much to resist.

Flights – with Air France from Heathrow via Paris CDG – and accommodation in an apartment on Independence Square were booked. Car parking at LHR was booked. Match tickets – the ridiculous sum of £1.50 – were bought. It was a great price; it worked out at £225 for three nights.

The fun began at 2am on the morning of Wednesday 13 March. I collected PD, then Parky soon after. The M4 had a closure, so I changed track onto the A303 before hitting the M3 and M25. We reached our parking spot at Terminal Four at around 4.15am. It had been a breeze. The flight left at 6.25am. At Paris, we bumped into two brothers from Stockton-On-Tees who I first met in Stockholm in 1998. The five of us were the only Chelsea on the flight. I caught up on some shut-eye on the three-hour flight to Kiev’s Boryspil airport. We touched down to clear blue skies bang on time at 1.55pm. I soon bumped into Steve and Neil, who had just flown in via Warsaw. Our cab was waiting outside to take us to the apartment.

I was buzzing.

Here we were.

In Ukraine.

In my pre-trip thoughts and daydreams, I had already conjured up a phrase that might turn out be relevant to describe the city. I had surmised that Kiev might well be grubby, and not just around the edges, but in the centre too. As we clambered into a dirty cab – its windows needing a clean, the aroma of its upholstery rather piquant – and as we drove into the city on a wide and dusty main road, I wondered if grubbiness might well dominate the entire trip. In retrospect, this initial impression turned out to be wide of the mark; although Kiev was to show signs of battle fatigue, its streets and pavements were ridiculously litter-free and the locals were smart dressers.

The cab ride, which took about forty-five minutes, gave us a scintillating introduction. The scale of the city exhilarated me. Many new apartment blocks were being built on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, and everything reminded me of Moscow in 2008. The residential blocks were simply huge. We careered over the massive river, then caught a glimpse of the large and impressive statue of the Motherland Monument, passing right underneath it. Soon there would be the first of many domes of churches and cathedrals. We hugged the river. There were cobbled streets. The sun shone. Kiev was charming me. Then, a real treat. We turned left down another cobbled street and I soon spotted the architectural joy of the white columns marking the entrance to Dynamo Kiev’s own stadium – right in the city centre – which the club uses alongside the larger Olympic Stadium a mile or two further south. It is named after the former Dynamo Kiev and Russia – before partition – team manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Five minutes later, up a steep hill – more cobbles – and then down to our apartment. It was perfect.

A quick change and we were out at just before 5pm. We had spotted a couple of cafes near our digs, but chose a bar on the corner of our block which intimated that it was open twenty-four hours. In we went. In this cellar bar – “Copper Bar” – we soon spotted Scott and Paul, who I remember bumping into in Baku last season, and we sat down at a table with them for a good two hours or so. Six pints of “Lvivske 1715” later, we were well on the way. We had a good old natter about all things Chelsea. Scott rarely misses a game. There was talk of the game in Boston in May that Paul and Scott are attending, but that will be a game too far for me. They were both in Perth in July, so their travels this season will see Chelsea play on three continents, or four if we get to Baku. Respect.

They then had to go off and meet others for a meal in the city and we tentatively agreed to meet up with them at a restaurant outside the metro stop at the stadium at 5pm on the following day. Stan from High Wycombe then duly arrived with two other Chelsea lads, and the chit-chat continued. Luke and Aroha then showed up. Things were warming up nicely.

At about 8pm or so, we clambered into a cab and were soon climbing up the hill behind the square. I had ear-marked the best rooftop bar in Kiev – “B Hush” which sits on top of the Intercontinental Hotel – and this turned out to be a fine diversion. The five of us settled in to a quiet corner and three more beers soon followed. There was the beat of music in the background. This was as chilled as it gets. It was so relaxing. Outside, the night was cold, but we did not care. The V shaped roof-terrace overlooked a square which housed St. Michael’s Cathedral and a large governmental building with pillars, both floodlit, to the left. To our right, a building was lit with the yellow and blue of the national flag, with the ornate tower and domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral floodlit beyond. In the distance, a myriad of lights, shapes, blocks. It seemed like we had the whole of the terrace to ourselves, and perhaps even the city. All really was quiet outside, but my heart was beating.

I was in my element.

I found myself out on the terrace a second time, alone with my thoughts and a glass of lager, and I stood there in my polo shirt and jeans, the cold night air biting at me. Luke came out to check on me and we just stood, looking out, disbelieving that we were there, in Kiev, at that moment, with friends, with Chelsea. Luke is quite a traveller with both club and country and he visited Russia for two or three World Cup games last summer. He loves foreign fields. But we both agreed how wonderful this European club football can be.

We were mesmerized by it all. The view. The history. The architecture. The lights. The city. The night.

“A million sparking lights, a million sparking stars, a million sparking lives.”

We had heard that some other friends – Dave and Liam – were drinking in a pub called the “Just Beer Bar” and we jumped into two cabs and shot off into the guts of the city. Ten minutes later, we arrived, soon to be joined – quite by chance – by Alan and Gary and Lucio and Pete, in addition to Dave and Liam. We had lost Aroha and Luke on the way, but their places were taken with new recruits. By this time – around 11.30pm, and without food since a meal on the plane over France, we were getting slowly, or quickly, pissed and things were getting blurred, just like the photographs. This bar – quite quiet to be honest, and themed with a nod to Americana – was not far from the Olympic Stadium, and near to the others’ accommodation. It seemed that in Kiev the Chelsea support was either housed near the stadium or Independence Square. Three more bottles of beer were quaffed, but thank heavens we stayed clear of the shorts and shots.

Just after midnight, we hailed a cab and returned back to our apartment, just finding enough time to shovel a horrible cold meat baguette into our respective mouths at a stand in Independence Square.

It had been – undoubtedly – a fine evening.

We enjoyed a little lie-in on the day of the game, and chose a late breakfast in a Crimean restaurant. But I felt a little tired. I felt a little low. I wanted to get a second wind. We soon bumped into Charlotte and Paul, also from Somerset, on the walk to pick up match tickets at the Premier Palace Hotel on Pushinska Street, which was no more than a twenty-minute walk away. This gave us the chance of a leisurely stroll along the sweeping curve of the impressive Kreschtayk Street. We walked past protestors outside a governmental building. The architecture was stunning, surprisingly so. I expected everything to be bleaker, grubbier. We collected match tickets – so good to see Dog, with Cath, at his first European away in around eight seasons – and continued on. We had decided to walk to the stadium. At 1.30pm, we dived into another cellar bar – another one which was open all day and all night – called the “Fat Lion” bar. Bars were scarce in Kiev. But we did well to spot a few. Three beers were quaffed. I loved this bar. There were a few Kiev fans enjoying a pre-match meal. The beer was excellent. The barmaid was stunning. I had my second wind.

Around a corner, a craft ale bar in a building which resembled a potting shed. This was really quiet. The IPA was tough to stomach.

On we went. We dived into the third cellar bar of the trip, and chatted to a Kiev fan underneath a Ukrainian flag. This lager had an odd, soapy taste.

We reached the metro outside the stadium bang on 5pm, but struggled and then failed to spot Scott, Paul and the others. We spotted a local restaurant – so busy – and enjoyed a fantastic, cheap and tasty meal, washed down with a couple of varying lagers. The beer definitely tasted better the previous night in the first pub on Independence Square. Opposite us were three Dynamo fans, demolishing plates of food, glasses of lager and a bottle of vodka like their life depended on it.

“England?”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

“Ah. Chel – see – eh.”

One was wearing a scarf. He intimated that he was troubled why we were not wearing a Chelsea scarf.

I felt like replying “so we don’t get slapped by your fucking ultras, mate” but I suspect it would have been lost in translation.

Outside, the night had fallen and there were bustling crowds outside the metro stop. The temperature had only dropped slightly, thank heavens. I had previously had visions of a shivering night inside the concrete of the Olympic Stadium. We began walking towards the lights of the stadium, which was no more than a hundred yards away. In the shadows, we were lucky to bump into a few Chelsea including Leigh from Basingstoke. He quickly reminded us that – as per the Chelsea website instruction that I had clearly forgotten – we were to divert away from the immediate vicinity, past some restaurants, up a dimly lit hill and finally into a narrow walkway which was not signposted at all. It wasn’t a huge and frustrating diversion away from the ground as at Barcelona this time last season and although the authorities, I am sure, insisted on this approach was for our own benefit, it still seemed a risky walk. There were no police close by and there was the threat of “ambush” in the air. Thankfully we made it into the compound of the stadium. We soon spotted lots of familiar faces.

We were safe and among friends.

The Olympic Stadium – an expansive roof added over its two tiers in 2011 – hosted last season’s Champions League Final. It’s an impressive stadium. Its seats mirror the Ukrainian national colours; two shades of yellow, two shades of blues – plus one shade of white for contrast – and although there is a random placing of these colours, the bottom tier is predominantly yellow and the top tier is predominantly blue, mirroring the two bars of the national flag. It’s a pleasing look.

We picked a row and took our spots. We didn’t have as many as the one thousand two-hundred in Budapest. The younger element was missing. The figure of five-hundred or so from the UK seemed right. This was augmented by a few hundred supporters from Ukraine, Belarus and other nearby countries. These foreign fans could easily be spotted; these were the ones wearing Chelsea scarves and tops, waving flags, clambering onto the fences at the front of our enclosure and generally being far too happy.

The UK supporters stood, as is our wont, with our hands in our pockets, comparing pre-match drinking adventures and grumbling about everything within sight.

It’s our way.

It’s what we do well.

The stadium took ages to fill up. I severely doubted that it would be anywhere near its 70,000 capacity. In the ‘sixties, it held over 100,000.

The team news had come through earlier.

Arrizabalaga

Zappacosta – Rudiger – Christensen – Alonso

Kovacic

Kante – Loftus-Cheek

Willian – Giroud – Hudson-Odoi

Willian was the captain for the night.

It was, of course, pleasing to see our Ruben and our Callum in the starting line-up. I had forgotten what our Davide looked like.

The teams came on, and our kit mirrored that of the stadium seats, but blue down below and yellow up top.

It was clear that the Kiev ultras were facing us at the opposite end, to the right of the access tunnel. They formed a dark and densely-packed mob, easily distinguishable from the rest of the home spectators. As the teams walked onto the pitch to the sound of the Europa League anthem (titled “Thursday Night Ersatz”) the ultras hoisted mosaics which formed an amalgam of the Ukranian flag and their club colours.

I was in a row alongside PD and Parky, then Lucy and Gary, Aroha and Luke, with Paul and Spencer from Swindon a few rows in front. Behind us, Scott and Paul. To my left, Kev, Tom and Russell. Alan, Gary and Raymondo a few rows behind. Other faces dotted around.

Chelsea in Kiev.

The game began.

There were a few Chelsea songs to mark the start of the match. Luke led the way with a barrage of ditties.

The home team – playing in all white for this one – attacked early but we coped with the danger. Over in the “north curve” a selection of eight or nine flags was waved with gusto, including a subtle black and white image of that man Lobanovskyi.

On just five minutes, we won a corner on our right. Willian struck the ball into the heart of our box, Ruben headed the ball on – and crucially down – into a few spare feet of space in front of the goal for Olivier Giroud to easily readjust his feet and guide the ball past Boyko.

I screamed with pleasure, the tie was safe now.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 1

Not long after, Ruben wriggled in from the left after a fine series of passes but his daisy-cutter was palmed away by the Kiev ‘keeper.

To our right, above us in the home section, we spotted a few locals wearing the red, white and black bar scarves of Manchester United. A banner was quickly hoisted but I was not quick enough to spot the wording before it was forced to retire. A small United flag stayed throughout the match.

“Bit pathetic, that” I thought.

Behind me there was a running gag with Scott.

“We need one more. We’ll be safe if we get to five-nil on aggregate.”

“Yeah, they’d have to score six.”

Smiles.

Scott had met up with a few other Chelsea at a restaurant just around the corner from us. He had enjoyed a lovely rib eye. I told him that I had opted for a Chicken Kiev.

“Oh, and I had some borscht for a starter. Very nice. Only trouble was, I had to queue up for it for two hours.”

We controlled the game. The Chelsea songs came and went. Thankfully the temperature was fine and this was no bitter night in Kiev. A few crosses into their box tested their ‘keeper who was already having a busy game. They had a free-kick which didn’t cause us any harm. A break on their left ended up with a shot being placed past Kepa by Garmash but the Kiev player was clearly offside as the ball was played.

Next up from the ultras was a show of colour with hundreds of blue and white scarves held up over heads, and very effective it was too. I was surprised that there were no flares on display, but they were determined to put on a good show for us despite trailing heavily.

I thought to myself : “Fair play. That’s the embodiment of support. Making a racket. Making some noise. Always.”

On the half-hour, Ruben withstood some challenges and played the ball forward from deep to a raiding Alonso. With the entire defensive back-line backing off, the left-back slipped in a perfect ball into the path of Giroud who had an easy one-touch finish.

Dinamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 2

“Still need one more. They’ll need to score seven, then.”

A fine clipped corner from Willian found a leaping Giroud at the near post but his header was over. It could, and perhaps should, have been a perfect first-half hat-trick…left foot, right foot, header. Just before the half-time whistle, another fine move allowed Callum to race onto a fine through ball from Giroud to set up Alonso from close-in.

Dinamo Kyiv 0 Chelsea 3.

It had been a perfect first-half. The home team had been so poor, though. They just could not cope with our movement. And they looked so rusty. But the running gag continued.

“We still need another. I can see them getting eight.”

A few Chelsea left at half-time.

Answers on a postcard please.

Kiev had us all in stitches early into the second-half when Sydorchuk followed up Kepa’s fine save from himself with a rushed effort against the post with the whole goal gaping. Immediately after, another offside decision ruled out another Garmash goal.

“Bloody hell, they’re crap.”

As the hour approached, I spotted clusters of white lights in the home areas. Phone torches had been turned on.

“What’s this, a bloody Barry Manilow concert?”

The lights lit up most of the home areas, although I admired the fact that the solemn block of three-thousand ultras did not participate.

“Good on them.”

I noted that several half-hearted attempts from the home fans above us to instigate a “wave” didn’t ever materialise. This crowd were clearly split into two. The ultras and the rest. But although parts of the home support were visually impressive, there was not great booms of noise. No thunderous racket. It was no Istanbul. To be honest, the single chant of “Dee-nah-moh” was rather meek.

With the torch lights still on, Willian waited to take a free-kick down below us in the corner. His fantastic cross was met with a magnificent header from Giroud. There was his perfect hat-trick.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

D KNIB 0 Chelsea 4.

Although, it has to be said, the marking was again non-existent. I reckoned that half the defence had buggered off to start queuing up for some beetroot soup. A swipe from the foot of Alonso at a free-kick forced a magnificent save, arching back, by the overworked ‘keeper Boyko. Next up from the ultras was something that Leeds United used to do at half-time around fifteen years ago; the stripping off of shirts and jackets. Over in the far quadrant, there were several hundred skins.

I pictured an image of David Brent : “Ooh. You’re hard.”

Jorginho came on for Kante.

Dave came on for an injured Davide.

Pedro replaced Willian, who handed the armband to Captain Dave.

On seventy-eight minutes, a lovely through-ball from Giroud played in Callum, who raced through and calmly slotted past the hapless Boyko.

Chickens 0 Lions 5

Scott tapped me on the shoulder.

“That’s it. We’re safe. They won’t score nine.”

The joke had run its course and so had the tie.

Chelsea 3 Dynamo Kiev 0.

Dynamo Kiev 0 Chelsea 5.

This was my biggest ever away win in Europe.

It had worked out at 30p per goal.

Bargain.

The gate was announced as a very healthy 64,830. And the vast majority stayed until the end. At the final whistle, the Kiev ultras were still holding their scarves aloft. They had provided us with quite a show. Our players walked over towards us, with Olivier Giroud clutching the match ball. To be honest, we had never really moved out of second gear the entire night. Kovacic and Willian had done well. Giroud had scored three nice goals. It was as easy a night in Europe as we have ever had. We applauded them, and they applauded us.

As we waited for around twenty minutes or so for the home legions to be cleared, I admitted to anyone that might be listening “the trouble is, we haven’t honestly played anyone in this thing yet.”

The boisterous foreign fans – Chelsea Ukraine scarves, Chelsea Belarus flags – then began to serenade each other with the “Chelsea Alouette” and caused the UK fans to giggle. You had to admire their passion.

I was one of the very last supporters to leave the entire stadium. I had gone down to take some shots of the empty bowl from the bottom of our section. It was still a mild night. I slowly walked to the top of the away section, and I was the very last Chelsea fan to leave. As I walked out of the gates, around fifty police walked with me, their employment for the night over.

That’s what I call a police escort.

I bought a cheap Dynamo fridge magnet from a cheery local woman out on the main approach. I was certainly surprised how relatively empty the streets were. Certainly all other Chelsea had disappeared into the night.

It did not take long for the three of us to hail a cab and head back towards Independence Square.

In the last match report, the home game with the Wanderers of Wolverhampton, I had mentioned “Sliding Doors” which had begun with a scene or two at the old Fulham Broadway tube station.

Intrigued?

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I remembered that I had slipped a map of Kiev, picked up at the Chelsea ticket collection point, into my back pocket. I retrieved it and pointed to Independence Square.

“Ah. Maidan.”

This was the local name. We sped through the city and were deposited right outside our apartment. It was only a five-minute drive. As soon as we set foot on the pavement, a couple of Hungarian Chelsea fans walked past us and, soon realising that we were Chelsea, and from England, told us that they were headed to a pub called “O’Briens.” I had remembered this pub from a chat that I had had with our main client in Ukraine who, at one stage, was keen to meet up with us on our stay. Keen to visit as many bars as possible during our stay, we followed them up the hill. It was only a five-minute walk. The pub was surprisingly quiet. I am not a huge fan of Irish pubs – apart from in Ireland – but this one was passable. The barman spoke great English and we enjoyed a relaxing hour or so.

The Hungarian fans, from the lovely city of Budapest – this season’s Europa League adventure keeps looping back on itself – were good company. Two lads, two girls, though not couples. Just in Kiev for the Chelsea. They were just amazed how cheap everything was in Kiev.  I told them how much we had enjoyed their city in December. Also in the pub, quite randomly, were two Slavia Prague fans, this time a couple, and the bloke laughed about how he wanted to visit London in the next round, but his girlfriend was not keen on the idea. There was a little banter between the people from Prague and Budapest – local histories, rivalries – and the three of us from Somerset and Wiltshire just sat back, bemused.

“Another pint?

At around 1am, we left the pub – “see you in the next round” – and walked back down to our digs. On the corner of the square, right outside the “Copper Pub” we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a fantastic end to a very fine day.

The cab driver asked for our destination.

I uttered the words “Independence Square.”

He looked blankly at me. I looked blankly at him. I needed to bring my geographical skills into operation. I had a pretty good notion of which way we needed to go, so I pointed ahead. At a junction, quite close to the “Fat Lion”, I inadvertently chose the wrong road. For around ten minutes, we veered slightly away from where I knew we needed to be headed and we ended up taking a few more wrong turns. We found ourselves up on the high area to the east of Independence Square, but we eventually reached a little area off Kreschtayk Street. We slowly walked under the still busy road, using the eerie underpass, and made our way up to our apartment. We looked at the “Copper Bar” and uttered the words “nightcap”. At the top of the stairs, I spotted a few security staff. Inside, the bar was a mix of Chelsea and a few locals. We sat at the bar, and ordered more “1715.” A Chelsea fan then stunned us with the words “there’s fifty of them up in the square.” I found this hard to believe as we had seen no Kiev fans anywhere since we had left the stadium. On our gentle stroll through Independence Square, there had been no Kiev fans, hooligans or ultras waiting in shadows or anywhere else. I dismissed it as a silly rumour.

Ten minutes later, there was a commotion in the other bar – more a walkway – and then around six or seven Dynamo Kiev fans appeared in our bar, no more than four yards away. I remained calm, but inside my head was spinning. How many were upstairs and on their way in? Did they have weapons? Was this going to be a horrible repeat of 2015? Their main man, horrible eyes, a grin on his face, looked around. He shouted.

“Hooligans!”

He was flanked by mere kids. He threw something across the bar, hitting one or two. There was a commotion, a rush of bodies. The sound of glasses being smashed. The Kiev fans were chased out. Parky, PD and I had not moved from the bar. It was all over within a few seconds.

We remained in the bar, calmed each other, and others, and finished our drinks. At around 1am we called it a day. Outside the pub, thankfully we spotted a few police.

There was nothing to see really, so we turned in.

It had been a very odd end to a very fine day.

Friday was a day of rest, relaxation, a little sightseeing, a few more beers, and then some more beers. We had another lie in, and breakfasted locally at a Parisian-style restaurant. The food, and coffees – much needed – were superb. The three of us headed over to check out the Dynamo stadium, and in the ten-minute walk, using the underpass again, we soon spotted memorials to locals who had fallen during the demonstrations and battles of Maidan in 2014. Images were etched onto stone. There were flowers. Some of the fallen were young. On a few occasions we noticed the painted outlines of bodies, marking the location of where innocent people were gunned down by the army as they protested the Ukrainian’s prime minister’s wishes to become closer to Russia. It was a cold and sobering moment.

The stadium, glistening in the late-morning sun, improved the mood a little. I loved the pillars, the iconic “D” of the Dynamo badge, the magical statue of Lobanovskyi – on his bench – looking over at Independence Square.

A penny for his thoughts.

Alas, we couldn’t enter the stadium, but we walked up a leafy walkway and I was able to take a few panoramic photographs. The floodlights were pure Eastern Bloc. The trees added a natural touch. The blue of the seats were so vivid. It was a stunning setting for a football stadium. I am pleased that the club still regard it as its base.

I continued a walk through the immediate area, then met up at the “Copper Bar.” We soon learnt that we were to play Slavia Prague in the quarter finals. We decided to give it a miss, then hope for Benfica – cheap flights from Bristol – rather than Frankfurt. Although from memory, that stadium is nicely nestled in some woods too. Either city would be a joy.

I left the boys to some more drinking as I headed up to the historic area of the Golden Gate, St. Sophia’s and St. Michael’s. I took plenty of photographs and I lost myself for an hour and a half, away from the madding crowd, away from the beers, and I enjoyed every second of it. On returning to the bar at about 5pm, the Bristol lot – Julie, Tim, Kev, Brian, Pete and Sam – had dropped in. This was their third visit to Kiev, after a flying visit en route to Donetsk in 2012 and again in 2015. Tim tellingly reported that there was devastation around Maidan / Independence Square on the second visit, with evidence of buildings being fire damaged. The area has certainly seen some action over the past few years.

Later that night, with the other two returning to the apartment early, I had the whole night to myself. There were a few beers in “Blues Bar” with a local duo playing some fine music. When they heard I was from London, they wanted to take a selfie with me. I found that odd, but touching. I returned to “B Hush” for a few more beers and some lovely food.  I was alone with my thoughts once again.

The night continued on.

Kiev had been a wonderful host city.

I would return in a heartbeat.

Tales From The Birthday Club

Chelsea vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers : 10 March 2019.

A common phrase uttered by Paul, the two Glenns and little old me over the past few days, and certainly on the drive to London, was this :

“Wolves won’t be easy, mind.”

I have been impressed by Nuno Espirito Santo’s team all season. They have consistently garnered points from both home and away games. I was not in attendance at our 2-1 defeat at Molineux in early December, but at all other times their spirit, attacking zip and defensive tightness has been impressive. They would, I was convinced, be a tough nut to crack.

This was a special day.

Our game at Stamford Bridge would come on the one-hundred and fourteenth anniversary of the formation of Chelsea Football and Athletic Company. There was an early start – I left my village at 6.45am – to enable a busy pre-match. The other three made their way to “The Eight Bells” at Putney Bridge, but I headed for Stamford Bridge, arriving at just after 10am. It made a change to walk along the Fulham Road without being accosted by touts. I was too early for even them. In the Copthorne Hotel, I met up with a few of the supporters from the US who have been visiting these shores the past week or so. Not only were the Ohio Blues in town for this match, but a few other fans from the US too. I soon met up with Mike from the New York Blues who many people at Chelsea know. It was a pleasure to see him again. There were twenty-five more folk from the New York, Connecticut, Boston and Pittsburgh supporters’ groups attending the Wolves game. It’s always splendid to see some friends from over the water. The Ohio Blues were out in force and they were getting a major hit of adrenaline from being able to mingle informally with such Chelsea legends as Ron Harris, Bobby Tambling and John Hollins from our original “golden era” and those such as Colin Pates, Kerry Dixon, John Bumstead and Paul Canoville from “my era.”

While there were broad smiles from Andrew, Kristin, Steve, Billy, Clint, Rafa and Jessica as they posed with photos with our former players, there was a very pleasing birthday present for myself. None other than Pat Nevin appeared and chatted to his former team mates. I could not resist having a few words with Pat. From memory it was only the fifth or sixth time that I have spoken to him. The first time was before the Fulham match at Stamford Bridge in March 1984 when he signed my programme and this brief interchange took place.

Chris : “Blimey. I am taller than you.”

I am not taller than many.

Pat : “That’s not difficult.”

The next time would be on a rainy day in Moscow in 2008.

Anyone who knows me will know that Wee Pat is my favourite footballer – ever – bar none.

It was a thrill, a real thrill, to see him again.

A funny thing happened on the way to “The Eight Bells.” I needed, at some stage, to meet up with my friend Jason who had two Everton tickets for me. As I made my way to Fulham Broadway tube, we exchanged a few texts, but soon realised that our pre-match meanderings would be taking place in separate parts of Fulham. We arranged, then, to meet up after the game at the Peter Osgood statue to exchange tickets and monies. I made my way down on to the southbound platform, and as an incoming train approached and then stopped, who should be looking out, right by the door, but Jason. His carriage stopped right where I was standing. The doors slid open. We had no time to stand on ceremony. Out came wallets, out came tickets, out came three crispy twenties, job done.

“It’s all about timing, Jase.”

I laughed as I hopped into the train as it carried me south.

For those who know Chelsea Football Club, this might raise a wry smile, as one of the opening scenes of the film “Sliding Doors” was filmed at Fulham Broadway.

Down at “The Eight Bells”, things were already in full flow. The lads had commandeered a table, roasts had been ordered for midday, and I sidled in next to Glenn and opposite PD and LP. The pub was full of Wolves fans and on my return to the table after ordering my food, I could not help talking to one chap in his sixties. He was wearing the old Wolves shirt from 1974.

“I used to love that shirt. Quality. Tell me, what do most fans think of the new kit? Too yellow?”

“Ah. Too yellow, ah.”

Glenn had been talking to a Wolves fan and his young daughter. Both had been at all their games this season. After a short while, the Ohio Blues arrived and squeezed in at an adjacent table. The Wolves fans were then politely asked to leave. I guess the bar staff wanted to look after their regulars. Most popped next-door to the roomier “King’s Head.” As he left, Glenn’s Wolves mate thanked him for “taking care of us.” This made me smile. They were proper football people. I have loads of time for them, like others, no matter who they support.

The food arrived.

Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, swede, thick gravy and horseradish sauce.

Ten out of ten.

On the TV, the roar went up as Burnley scored at an increasingly icy Anfield. Sadly, that story did not pan out as we would hope. The laughter roared as our US friends relaxed and enjoyed this most intimate of pubs. It was, I will admit, ridiculously busy. It was rammed solid. Getting up to go to the bar was like moving in a real-life Tetris puzzle. The Kent boys arrived. Kristen taught them the Ohio Blues song. Another little group of friends arrived and stood by the doors. “The Eight Bells” could surely not accommodate any more people if it tried. There was not a spare inch anywhere. What a blast.

“Shame we have to go to the game.”

…mmm.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Emerson

Jorginho

Kante – Kovacic

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We made our way up the steps at Putney Bridge tube and onto the northbound train. There was a blustery wind that almost blew my face into April. We said our goodbyes to the Ohio contingent who had been great companions over the past week.

Inside the stadium, three-thousand Wolves fans were in position. Overhead were clear blue skies. In the sheltered Stamford Bridge, the wind could not cut us in quite the same way. I was pleased to see that the visitors did not chose a change kit. I would be able to make up my own mind about the effectiveness of Wolves’ new kit colour. The pensioner in the pub was right. It was too yellow. Old gold is a very subtle colour. For too long, Wolves’ shirts were too bright, too lurid, too orange. But this edition was certainly off too.

“Must try better.”

In the first quarter of the game, such was the paucity of entertainment on show on the pitch that Alan and I talked through our plans for Kiev, and we also reviewed how our two respective local non-league teams are faring (Alan’s Bromley far better than my Frome Town). Suffice to say, we did not miss much.

It was all so damned slow.

Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass.

Like an idiot on “Mastermind.”

Added to the poor standard of play, it was a dreadful atmosphere. The away supporters chided us :

“Can you hear Chelsea sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing.”

In an effort to conjure up a goal from somewhere, Glenn, Alan and I took it in turns to repeat my move from Thursday evening and took turns to visit the toilets. Even the two lads in front joined in. It did not work. The Wolves team, boasting two towering centre-backs, defended deep from the off, and they simply did not allow us room to roam. We needed to get behind them, and we didn’t. Mateo Kovacic was especially useless. Pedro was all spins and juggles and twists but with no end product. Eden Hazard was quiet. Gonzalo Higuain had a couple of very vague half-chances. That was it, that was the first-half. Wolves hardly bothered attacking at all.

At half-time, I turned to Alan and said “that was dire.”

Sigh.

“If anybody was to mark our players in that half (and I always quote the Italian sports paper system of scores ranging from three to seven most of the time, rarely an eight nor certainly not a nine), nobody apart from Kante would get more than a three or a four. Kepa would be unmarked as he hasn’t touched the ball.”

Surely we could not play so poorly in the second period.

Hazard was fouled right on the line of the penalty box – a large shout went up for a penalty, my photo was inconclusive – but David Luiz slammed the free-kick at the wall.

After ten minutes of lackluster football, Wolves suddenly found their compass and Ordnance Survey map and charged forward after a timid Chelsea move petered-out. We were completely exposed as their two strikers raced into our half. Raul Jimenez was able to dink the ball – slow motion in full effect – over Kepa and into The Shed goal. The Wolves players huddled in front of their supporters who were, of course, somersaulting with joy.

Before the game I had expected a more open match and, with it, the chance for Chelsea to cut Wolves to threads in the spaces provided behind them. Well, that shows how much I know about anything. Wolves did exactly this to us. Damningly, horrifyingly, the goal came from their very first effort the entire game.

Bollocks.

There were two quick changes and on came the youth, moves which were met with approval from all.

Our Ruben for the awful Kovacic.

Our Callum for Pedro.

“COME ON CHELSEA.”

Then, a miracle, Jorginho was replaced by Willian.

Kante withdrew a few yards. Hazard slipped inside alongside Loftus-Cheek. Pedro and Callum were out wide and saw a bit more of the ball. The substitutions breathed a little life into our support. A couple of shots tested the Wolves ‘keeper. There were efforts from Higuain and a curler from Willian. A flick on from a corner went past ten players in the Wolves six-yard box and also past a lunge from Higuain at the far post. But our play was poor. I lost count of the times that I looked up and saw a player looking for a pass but nobody – and I really mean nobody – bothered to shift their ‘arris and move into space, which surely has to be the most important aspect of this manager’s playing style. It was deeply disappointing and the crowd were restless, but quiet, an odd combination. Willian blasted two free-kicks which ricocheted back off the wall. A shot from Dave was blocked.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

This really was turning into an unhappy birthday.

I could not see us scoring in a month of Sundays. The two central Wolves strikers had occasional breaks which thankfully petered out. There was another shot from Willian. Time was running out and quickly. We stepped up the pressure a little. Four minutes of extra-time were signaled.

“COME ON CHELS.”

On ninety-two minutes, with hopes fading fast – I felt for the US fans in the Shed Lower, a few of whom were watching their first-ever game at Stamford Bridge – Eden Hazard moved the ball square some twenty-five yards out. He looked up and took aim. His low shot traced its unhindered way through a packed penalty area. The ball nestled in to the far corner. It was the one moment of class of the entire sorry game.

GET IN.

Eden took the handshakes of thanks from his team mates and Kirsten waved a “Ohio Blues – Full Of Booze” scarf in The Shed.

Phew.

At last we roared but, despite some noise at last, there was no chance of a second. It had taken us ninety-two minutes to score one. There was little likelihood of us getting another.

It had been a poor game, but we had at least salvaged a point.

On Thursday, Chelsea Football Club play in Kiev.

I might bump into a few of you out there.

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